Monday, May 16, 2005

A Brief Look at Breakfast Cereals

Ready to eat breakfast cereals have been a part of American life for so long that is hard to picture a time when they did not exist. Indeed, they are one of the few foods that has not only become a part of Americana, but even a part of American popular culture itself. After all, it seems to me a rare thing that people hold long discussions on brands of bread or cake mixes. On the other hand, it seems to me that people can spend hours talking about the breakfast cereals they ate as children.

Ready to eat breakfasts cereals emerged because of the efforts of two health reformers in the late 19th century. In Battle Creek, Michigan Dr. John Harvey Kellog ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a hospital and health spa where the rich and famous would go to get well. Dr. Kellog's brother, W. K. Kellogg, was constantly on the look out for a breakfast food that would not only be nutritious, but would taste good as well. It was in 1894 that W. K. Kellog developed a baked wheat flake, the first modern ready to eat cereal. W. K. Kellogg would form the Sanitas Food Company in 1898 and go onto create Corn Flakes. By 1906 he would found the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes Company, which would become the Kellogg Company in 1922.

The other pivotal figure in the history of ready to eat cereals was C. W. Post. Like Kellogg, Post was concerned with health. And like Kellogg he wanted to develop a tasty but nutritious breakfast food. Much of this was spurred by Post's own ill health. Indeed, he even spent time in the Kellogg's sanitarium. In 1895 Post invented a hot cereal drink called Postum. In 1897 he introduced his own ready to eat cereal, Grape Nuts, a brand which is still around today. Not only was Post a pioneer in breakfast cereals, but a pioneer in advertising as well. As early as 1895, Post started a massive advertising campaign in the local, Battle Creek newspapers. It was not long before he started the first nation wide, advertising campaign in America. He was also one of the earliest manufacturers to use coupons to help sell his product.

Both Kellogg and Post's ready to eat breakfast cereals proved successful enough that competitors soon entered the market. In 1902 Ralston-Purina introduced Ralston Wheat Cereal, which would eventually evolve into the well known Chex brand. General Mills would enter the ready to eat cereal market in 1924. Ever since Kellogg and Post first developed ready to eat breakfast cereal, there have always been a number of smaller companies in the field beyond the big names (Kellogg's, Post, General Mills, Ralston Purina, and Quaker Oats).

As pointed out above, from the beginning advertising has played a big role in the promotion of ready to eat breakfast cereals. Indeed, mascots to promote ready to eat breakfast cereals were introduced very early in their history. This should come as no surprise. Even before ready to eat breakfast cereals were invented, the Quaker Oats man was the first character trademarked by an American company in 1877. Once ready to eat breakfast cereals were invented, it was only a matter of time before they would develop their own characters. One of the earliest was Sunny Jim, a grandfatherly cartoon character created in 1902 to promote H-O Oats Force Flakes in the early 1900s. Both the cereal and the character Sunny Jim have been forgotten, although the name "Sunny Jim" would enter the English language as a popular sobriquet. Strangely, both the cereal and Sunny Jim would be more succesful in the United Kingdom than the United States. Snap, Crackle, and Pop, the cartoon elves used to promote Kellogg's Rice Crispies, are also among the oldest cereal mascots. They first appeared in 1933, making them the oldest breakfast cereal characters still in use. Indeed, they would be the first cereal mascots to be animated for a TV commercial. While breakfast cereal characters have been around nearly as long as ready to eat breakfast cereals, it was with the advent of television that they really began to proliferate. In 1952 Kelloggs held a poll to see which of four characters would promote their new cereal, Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. People could choose from Elmo the Elephant, Katy the Kangaroo, Newt the Gnu, and Tony the Tiger. As history shows, Tony won.

The success of Tony the Tiger in promoting Frosted Flakes is probably what led to the proliferation of ready to eat breakfast cereal characters in the Fifties. The Fifties and Sixties would see the introduction of Tucan Sam (Kellogg's Fruit Loops), Lucky the Leprechaun (Lucky Charms), and Sugar Bear (Sugar Crisp). As large a role as cartoon characters played in the marketing of ready to eat breakfast cereals, it should come as no surprise that a company would actually think to develop the cereal's mascot before they even developed the cereal! In 1963 Quaker Oats commisioned Jay Ward Studios (creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle and George of the Jungle) to create a character for a new cereal. That character was Cap'n Crunch. Jay Ward Studios created an entire mythos for Cap'n Crunch. He sailed on the Milky Sea in his ship the Guppy with his crew, Alfie, Brunhilde, Carlyle and Dave. Jay Ward would laer create two other cartoon characters for Quaker Oats, Quisp and Quake. Quisp was an alien from Planet Q with a propellor atop his head. Quake was a muscular superhero from the centre of the earth. They had a rivalry over whose cereal was best, although in truth the two cereals were indistiguishable from each other. Capn' Crunch, Quisp, and Quake were not the only ready to eat breakfast cereal characters with a distinguished lineage. The Trix Rabbit was created in 1959 by Joe Harris to promote Trix cereal. Joe Harris would go onto create both Tennessee Tuxedo and Underdog.

Indeed, at least one breakfast cereal character proved popular enough to get his own Saturday morning cartoon. Linus the Lion Hearted was the spokesman for Post Krispy Kritters cereal. In 1964 he got his own cartoon, The Linus the Lionhearted Show. The series not only featured Linus, but virtually every other Post cereal character (Sugar Bear, Lovable Truly the postman, Billy the Bird, and so on). The cartoon proved fairly successful. In fact, its run was ended only when the FCC ruled that characters in children's programming could not appear in commercials during the show. Linus the Lion Hearted then went off the air. Of course, a further mark of Linus's success was that he may have been the first breakfast cereal character to have a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, first appearing in 1964.

Of course, cartoon characters were not the only things used to promote breakfast cereals. From the beginning breakfast cereal companies have offered a number of giveaways and premiums to sell their products. As far back as 1909 Kelloggs offered the Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Booklet for buying any two of their cereals. Over the years a number of different freebies have been given away with breakfast cereals, from premiums gotten with a specific number of boxtops to freebies right inside of the box. One of the most popular giveaways of the Forties were pinback buttons featuring cartoon characters (Dick Tracy, Superman, and so on) that were included in each box of Pep. The premiums and giveaways often used to promote cereals have long been a source of ire for parents. I remember an old neighbour of mine telling how he would coax his parents to buy Pep cereal simply because he wanted the model planes that he could get with it. A note must be made that he did not even like Pep cereal! I know my father often complained that my brother and I would simply buy cereals for the toy dinosaurs or wild animals or cars or whatever was to be found in the box. Indeed, I had an entire collections of Freakies characters from the cereal of the same name, even though the cereal did not taste particularly good (it had a slight metallic taste to it...). I also remember in the early Seventies many Post cereals would include a Monkees record that could be cut out from back of the box.

Ready to eat breakfast cereals have been a part of the American cultural landscape for over 100 years now and I suspect that they will be for a long time to come. The average sales for breakfast cereals and related products are nearly $9.8 billion in the United States alone. With the lifestyles of Americans being busier than they ever have been before, it would not surprise me if that number were to increase in years to come. It seems that W. K. Kellogg and C. W. Post's invention will be with us for a long time to come.


The Talking Mute said...

More power to your blog. I've taken history classes in the past and none of what I've read so far has surpassed your choice of topics regarding "then and now." I enjoy reading your articles. They're very informative. I share your love of music as well especially The Beatles.

Mercurie said...

Thank you for your kind comments. While I must confess I mainly just write about what interests me (namely, pop culture, Americana, and Britannia), but I do try to do a good job at it. (-: