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Cerealizing America: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal

Cerealizing America:
The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal

The bible of cereal history has just been published by Faber Faber. Cerealizing America: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal Cereal by Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford is a no-bowls-barred look at the cereal industry. Each month we will post an additional chapter of the book for your reading pleasure. Sit your cereal bowl down in front of the monitor and eat along as you read.

But be sure to Fletcherize! If you want a copy of the book, go to the nearest bookstore and scream "I want my Cerealizing America!" Send all raves and flames to Bill Crawford.





Diagnosis: Dyspepsia, Put Back the Bran, Water, Water Everywhere

A Vision of Health, John Harvey Kellogg, The Printer's Devil, Biologic Living, The Perfect Flake

The Road to Wellville, There's A Reason, Asinine Views

Quacks and Flakes, Sunny Jim, Edible Linoleum, It's in the Shreds

The Flunkey, None Genuine Without this Signature, The Flaming Sword, Battle of the Bran, I Don't Like Applesauce


The Oatmeal King, Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, Rastus, I Dare You, Shot From Guns

The First Jingle, Skippy and the Lindbergh Baby, Tom Mix, Shazam!, The All-American Boy, Breakfast of Champions

Snap, Crackle, Pop, The Mouse That Scored, The Mental Kid, Cheerioats


Ranger Joe Breaks Trail, Cuts Up Your Mouth Like Glass, Frosting on the Flakes, Edible Alphabet, The Big Red K

Black and White Breakfast, The Gold Dust Twins, Sugar Pops are Tops, Superman

11. Tummy Vision
Wizards of the Breakfast Table, Blast Off, Oaters

The Colorful Subconscious, Post Tries Harder, By Nook or By Crook, Kellogg Culture

He's GR-R-REAT, Big Oafish, Marky Maypo Steals the Show


Mornings in Mayberry, The Jethro Bowl, Oh, That's Corny, Bob Richards for President, Rock 'n' Bowl

Smarter than the Average Bear, The Banana Splits, Little Leos

The Advertising Beat, Linus the Lionhearted, Breakfast in Bedrock, Freeze-Dried Flop, Little Boxes - Big Problems

Rocky and Bullwinkle, Silly Rabbit, Marbits and Monstrosities

Cap'n Crunch, Quisp and Quake, Team Players


Breakfast of Chumps, FTC Baloney Enriched Yum-Yums, Barbarians at the Bowl, Bran Craze, Cereal Savanarola

Johnny Granola Seed, Freakies, Pig in the Python, Coupon Crazy

Rat Chow, Sugar Coated Vitamins, Cereal Sanctus


Breakfast cereal is the all-American food. Created by eccentric health reformers more than a hundred years ago, the strangely shaped bits of flavored grain have become a staple of the American diet, eaten by more than 80 million Americans every day. Cereal slogans such as "snap, crackle, pop," "koo-koo for cocoa puffs," and "silly rabbit," are better known than the national anthem, and a lot funnier. Cereal characters, like Tony the Tiger and Cap'n Crunch are more recognizable than any American political leader, and at least as trustworthy.

In the words of economist Paul Samuelson, the saga of cereal is "one of those fascinating business stories that illuminate our lifestyles, history and economy." Indeed, only in America could the world's most sophisticated nutritional/industrial food processing complex earn more than eight billion dollars per year flaking, puffing, shredding, mashing, popping and baking the most basic of foods - cereal.

Defined by Webster's Dictionary as any edible grain, cereal was responsible for the rise of human civilization. When neolithic farmers figured out how to cultivate wheat, millet, oats and other wild grasses some 10,000 years ago, they created the first steady food supply humankind had ever known. With cereal agriculture, humans no longer needed to spend their time wandering over the earth in search of wildlife or seasonally available vegetable foods. Instead, they could grow food in their own backyard, and store it for later consumption. From Mohenjo-daro to Babylon, from Ur to Memphis, the first civilized people on earth thrived on cereal.

Of course, the Pharaohs didn't sit around on the pyramids munching on Sugar Frosted Flakes or Freakies. Porridge was the staff of life in the ancient world. The Greeks thrived on a grain based concoction known as sitos, cooked cereal flavored with olive oil and perhaps a dash of lamb gravy. The Romans, whose cerealia, or festivals in honor of the goddess of agriculture Ceres, gave us the word cereal, conquered the world on stomachs filled with puls, a gruel made from barley, millet, wheat or oats.

From medieval times until the 19th century, Europeans ate rye or buckwheat gruel and slurped down frumenty, a boiled wheat and milk concoction. Native Americans munched on hominy and samp, porridges made from that unique North American grain product corn. It wasn't until the nineteenth century that a synthesis of American religious beliefs, scientific research and technological innovation gave rise to the crunchy, crisp, snap crackling foodstuff we now know as breakfast cereal.


*** Americans buy 2.7 billion packages of breakfast cereal each year.

If laid end to end, the empty cereal boxes from one year's consumption would stretch to the moon and back.

*** The cereal industry uses 816 million pounds of sugar per year, enough to coat each and every American with more than three pounds of sugar. The cereal with the highest amount of sugar per serving is Smacks, which is 53% sugar.

*** Americans consume about ten pounds or 160 bowls of cereal per person per year. But America ranks only fourth in per capita cereal consumption. Ireland ranks first, England ranks second, and Australia ranks third.

*** 49 per cent of Americans start each morning with a bowl of cereal, 30 per cent eat toast, 28 per cent eat eggs, 28 per cent have coffee, 17 per cent have hot cereal and fewer than 10 per cent have pancakes, sausage, bagels or french toast.

*** Breakfast cereals are the third most popular product sold at supermarkets in terms of dollar sales. The five most popular products are 1. carbonated beverages, 2. milk, 3. breakfast cereal, 4. cigarettes and 5. fresh bread and rolls.

*** In 1993, more than 1.3 million advertisements for cereal aired on American television, or more than twenty five hours of cereal advertising per day, at a cost of $762 million for the purchase of air time. Only auto manufacturers spend more money on television advertising than the makers of breakfast cereal.

Over the past one hundred years, breakfast cereal has traveled from the North Pole to the South Pole, from the deepest jungles of equatorial Africa to the top of Mount Everest - even to the moon. One of the world's first health foods, cereal played an important role in convincing Americans to shape their live to the rhythms of a healthy body. The crunchy foodstuff was one of America's first prepackaged and mass-marketed consumer products, helping to liberate homemakers from the drudgery of the kitchen while laying the foundation for modern advertising and food retailing operations.

More than just a food, cereal has also served as a barometer of the ever changing trends in American dietary and popular culture. From All-Bran to Cap'n Crunch, from Babe Ruth to Michael Jordan, from Jack Armstrong to Super Mario Brothers, the cereal aisle is a true and accurate reflection of America's cultural psyche.

Ask octogenarians about breakfast cereal, and many will describe the china they collected from Quaker Oat boxes. Ask baby boomers about Tony the Tiger and stand back to hear the roar, "They're GR-R-REAT." Walk with four year olds along the cereal aisle and watch them lunge for Ninja Turtles or Fruity Pebbles. Like it or not, our stomachs and our brains are full of cereal. Luckily, the influence for the most part has been benign - and tremendously entertaining.


The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed a scientific, industrial and religious awakening across America. The horizons seemed endless, bounded only by human energy and the ability to overcome the horrible consequences of the American diet.


The young nation's appetite was enough to turn anyone's stomach. New Englanders breakfasted on "black tea and toast, scrambled eggs, fresh spring shad, wild pigeons, pigs' feet, tow robins on toast, oysters," according to one horrified journalist of the period, while the people of a small town in Ohio welcomed a visiting official with 23 meats, 24 vegetables, 4 kinds of pickles, 4 breads, 5 condiments, a dozen pie tarts and assorted cakes and puddings. One French traveler, the Marquis de Chastellux commented on his daily breakfast of "a few loins of veal, some legs of mutton, and other trifels of that kind," a meal that he described as a "slight repast" lasting "an hour and a half."

British astronomer Francis Baily wrote in his diary that his landlord at a Virginia Inn served a breakfast of "beefsteaks, sausages, stewed veal, fried ham, eggs, coffee and tea." His next diary entry noted simply, "whilst at the place, we buried the landlord of our inn."

Although Baily established no causal relationship between his landlord's death and breakfast, others decried "the established barbarisms of a public dinner." Rooming houses offered coffee that looked liked ashes and water, watery potatoes, and butter boats filled with grease, water and salt. In keeping with the gluttonous spirit of the times, the standard rules of etiquette for breakfast, lunch and dinner were "gobble, gulp and go."

On the edges of the American frontier, the food was worse - much worse. Heading west from St. Louis, one writer commented that travelers soon struck "a region where the principal articles of diet are saleratus and grease, to which a little flour and pork are added." Saleratus was the nineteenth century term for baking soda, but it was pork that filled the bellies of American pioneers.

Sliced, chopped or torn from the bodies of the ubiquitious "rail splitter" hogs, most often salted so that it would keep, fried pork was served up in thick chunks for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Pork wasn't just the other white meat, it was the only white meat, and the only thing on the table for most Americans. One adventurer, sniffing the breeze to discover the essence of the brave new land, came to the conclusion that "everything tastes and smells of hog's grease."

America in the nineteenth century had gone hog wild, nutritionally speaking, with all the anticipated consequences. As the young nation gulped down salt pork, whiskey, and coffee, a few wise men shook their heads in sadness over the state of the union's digestive tract. "Billous complaints are now all the fashion at the 'Great West,'" wrote one chronicler. "Rapid eating almost always overloaded the stomach," wrote A. Combe in his 1842 work Physiological Digestion. "And when to this is added a total disregard of the quietude necessary for digestion, what can be expected to follow but inveterate dyspepsia?"

What indeed. Nineteenth-century America suffered from one huge, bloated, gaseous, painful enormous belly ache. Defined in the mid-seventeeth century as "difficulty of digestion or fermentation in the stomach or guts," dyspepsia was the disease of the Steel Age. "All classes and all ages suffer from its attacks," noted the 1830 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana in its entry on dyspepsia. "Few are so happy to pass through a life of ordinary duration, without undergoing a protracted struggle with this malady." Dyspepsia was so much a part of the American lifestyle that one compiler of cookbooks referred to it as "Americanitis."

The problem of having too much to eat was a new one for previously hungry humanity. Though the calorie had been discoverd by a Frenchman in the eighteenth century, and a Dutch chemist introduced the word protein in 1838, most respected nineteenth century phsycians believed that all foods had the same nutritive value, one 'universal aliment' which helped the body grow and repaired tissue. Bulk, not variety, was the only consideration, as dyspeptics looked outside the medical establishment for an end to their pain.


Men of industry were too busy building canals and factories to worry about stomachaches, religious leaders understood that dietary restrictions had been a part of religious life since before the time of Moses. Many of these fundamentalist healers took inspiration from various passages of the bible, particularly Genesis, 1:29, "Behold, I have given you every plant bearing seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit: you shall have them for food."

No one in America believed in the biblical call to vegetarianism more fervently than William Metcalfe. "Father" Metcalfe, as he was called, was a homeopathic doctor, a clergyman, and a follower of William Cowherd, the founder of the Bible Christian Church, England's only vegetarian congregation. Metcalfe transplanted the teachings of his mentor to the fertile spiritual soil of Philadelphia. In 1817, he founded the North Third Street Church, the first vegetarian organization in the U.S., and began publishing The American Vegetarian, America's first magazine for non-meat eaters. "He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man," argued Metcalfe and his pioneering group.

One of those lured by the vegetarian siren was Sylvester Graham. Ridiculed as the "peristaltic persuader" by some, heralded as the "prophet of bran bread and pumpkins" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Graham was the America's first bona fide health nut. It was Graham more than any other nineteenth century individual who managed to convince a skeptical American public that diet and health were inseparably connected.

In thousands of words both published and spoken, Graham proclaimed the majesty of the simple raw vegetable, warning his audiences that meat eating inflamed the "baser propensities," tea drinking let to delirium tremens, and mustard caused insanity. An ardent foe of sexual activity, Graham believed that the brain, the stomach and the genitals were linked in such a way that meat eating led to masturbation, and masturbation made people stupid. As a cure for what he called the "vice," Graham recommended a diet devoid of meat and filled with his bran-filled foodstuff known as graham bread. If indulgence in the "vice" still persisted, Graham reccommended the application of handcuffs.

Trained as a Presbyterian minister, Graham began his health crusade in 1824, when he moved to Philadelphia to take up work as the spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Society for the Suppression of the Use of Ardent Spirits. The work suited the dogmatic thirty four year old, who thrived in his position as a lecturer, writer and health crusader. With the blessing of Father Metcalfe, he took up the cause of vegetarianism with equally unbridled enthusiasm. Scorned at first by the public, Graham's message began to hit home when a cholera epidemic swept through New York in 1832. Suddenly, people were looking for a way to maintain their health, and Graham was there to guide them.

Eat nothing but fresh vegetables and fruits - raw, he urged the sickly masses. And chew them slowly with plenty of saliva. His radical ideas were safer than conventional medical wisdom, which relied heavily on the use of bleeding and leeches. As more and more people followed his dietary advice and the cholera epidemic passed, Graham's popularity surged catapulting him to a level of national prominence that he was to enjoy for almost a decade. He became Jacksonian America's number one health spokesperson.

The Graham campaign to lead the nation out of its dyspeptic stupor focused on one particular item of the American diet - bread.

"Put back the bran," he cried again and again, tracing the decline of the human physique to the refining process by which bran was taken out of whole wheat flour. Pointing out the healthy lifestyle of the family farmer, Graham noted that "if his horse had straw cut with his grain, or hay in abundance, he does well enough...Just so it is with the human species. Man needs the bran in his bread." Graham's bran-filled hypothesis was simple - white bread will make you sick.

Graham accused commercial bakers of not only refining their flour to a sinful extreme but also growing their grain on debauched and exhausted soil, artificially stimulated with animal manure. Bakers did not take kindly to Graham's words and mobbed a Boston lecture hall where he was scheduled to speak in March 1837. Graham avoided any physical injury in the confrontation, but his reputation took a pounding after a later appearance, when the staff doctor of the Boston lunatic asylum declared that the reforming lecturer was obviously insane.

Insane though he may have been, Graham's speaking fees swelled to as much as $300 per night as he plunged into new areas of medical investigation. He preached against the dangers of feather beds and tight corsets, claiming that "folly in dress" killed 80,000 Americans each year. He criticized the schools, warning that the "disproportionate exercise of the brain" was dangerous for it "leads to a general debility of the nervous system, involving the genital organs."

Such eccentric opinions caused Graham's light to fade on the national stage. He retired to Northampton, Mass. where he continued to pour forth medical and spiritual advice. By 1850, his health and status had declined to the point where one of his neighbors described him as "infirm, seated in a wheelbarrow, and clothed in a long dressing gown of bedticking, wheeled through the streets to the post office by a man-servant."

Despite his sad decline, Graham's message continues to thrive, embodied in the simple whole grain snack that still bears his name, the graham cracker. The health reformist returned again briefly to national prominence in 1992, when General Mills introduced a new, wholesome cereal product named S. W. Graham.


Although Graham passed away in 1851, thousands of Americans continued the effort to purify the American lifestyle and find a cure for the nation's dyspepsia. The respected medical publication, the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal noted, "No man can travel by stage or steamboat, or go into any part of our country and begin to advocate a vegetable diet...without being immediately asked - 'What. Are you a Grahamite?"

Graham boarding houses sprang up in New York and Boston. More than 85 publications claiming Grahamite affiliation appeared in the mid nineteenth century. Some of these pioneering vegetarians ate only raw food. Others ate only nuts and milks. Some avoided potatoes and other tuberous vegetables, while still others confined their diet to plants grown in virgin soil.

No matter what their individual vegetarian peculiarities, the Grahamites for the most part agreed with Dr. William A. Alcott, the first cousin of Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May of Little Women fame. The author of dozens of popular self help books, including The Young Wife, The Young Housekeeper, and Vegetable Diet, Alcott wrote, "A vegetable diet lies at the basis of all reform, whether, Civil, Social, Moral or Religious."

Dr. Alcott was one of the founding members of the American Vegetarian Society, the most influential vegetarian organization to arise from Graham's bran-filled theoretical compost heap. The guest list at the first meeting of the society held in New York City in 1850 read like a who's who of nineteenth century reform. Sharing the toasts to "total abstinence, women's rights and vegetarianism," were anti-slavery activist Harriet Beecher Stow, enemy of the corset Amelia Bloomer, journalist Horace Greeley, world renowned phrenologists Orson and Lorenzo Fowler and Dr. James Caleb Jackson, creator of the world's first cold breakfast cereal.

Jackson was an abolitionist, an editor and a lecturer, but most prominently a hydrotherapist, one of the many alternative medical practioners of the time who believed in the healing power of water. The water cure, as hydrotherapy was called, first emerged in the 1820s when a Silesian peasant named Vincent Preissnitz broke his leg. Preissnitz treated his injury by wrapping his limb in water soaked fabric. When the bone healed quickly, Preissntiz began to exploring the power of water by exposing himself to water in any way he could. He sat in it, he doused himself with it, he wrapped himself in water soaked sheets and he drank it - gallons of it.

In 1844, Dr. Joel Shew opened the first Priessnitz styled water-cure establishment in the U. S., offering everything from the "oral and nasal bath" in which the patient drew "water up the nose" and expelled it to finger baths, eye baths, lip baths and sweating.

Within ten years, sixty two such water cures were in operation. "The water revolution is a great revolution," wrote Shew's colleague Dr. Jackson, "It touches more interests than any revolution since the days of Jesus Christ."

In 1859, James Caleb Jackson dove into the water cure business, transforming a run down hotel in the small western New York town of Dansville into the Jackson Sanatorium, better known as "Our Home on the Hillside." Jackson treated his visitors to a strict regimen of exercise, fresh air, temperance, healthy foods, and plenty of pure (not mineral) water. For many, the hydropathic treatments were a unique experience. Most people in the 1860s simply did not bathe. Many thought that bathing was unhealthy, and in the days before hot running water, the pitcher and washbowl were America's most commonly accepted tools of the toilet. Extreme as it might have been, Jackson and the water cure craze did a great service to America by helping to convincing her people that cleanliness was an important part of healthiness.

In addition to the unique sensations of bathing, Jackson offered his clients a guarantee - "No cure, no pay." Under these conditions, Jackson's patients could afford to relax and enjoy the plays, dancing and other diversions offered by the staff at "Our Home." One of the the most anticipated activities was listening to a lecture by Dr. Jackson himself, an event with the staff advertised by hoisting a flag over the hillside establishment emblazoned with the letter J.

Jackson devised dietetic as well as intellectual entertainment for his patients. Though he didn't insist on a vegetarian diet, he did his best to lure his visitors along the path of righteous consumption. In 1863, Jackson began a culinary experiment that would eventually revolutionize American eating. He took graham flour, as coarsely ground bran-filled whole wheat flour was known, mixed it with water and baked it. He then took the hard, brittle whole wheat bricks, broke them up into the size of large beans or cherries, and baked them again. The resulting ready to eat food product he dubbed Granula and he served it to his visitors for breakfast.

Granula could never compete with Cinnamon Toast Crunch. The first cold breakfast cereal was impossible to eat unless it soaked overnight in milk. Even then the bits of twiced cooked graham flour were tough and tasteless. Nevertheless, Jackson thought enough of his creation to found a commercial enterprise, Our Home Granula Company, to manufacture his breakfast product and sell it to visitors and patients. Jackson soon expanded his product line with Somo a "health coffee," trademarked his culinary creations, and rans ads in his publication, The American Water Cure Journal and Health Reform Magazine, encouraging his readers to order by mail so that they too could "Eat Granula, Drink Somo." Dyspepsia, by way of fundamentalism, temperance, vegetarianism, bran-filled bread and cold water bathing, had given birth to the first ready- to-eat cold breakfast cereal. But it took a message from heaven to turn Jackson's innovation into the crunch heard 'round the world.

Dyspeptic Shopping

Most nineteenth century Americans grew or killed their own food, but even those who were lucky enough to be able to shop for food in the days before the clean wide aisles of the supermarket had to endure an experience only slightly less grotesque than the slaughter house. In 1910, investigators from the Massachusetts Commission on the Cost of Living described a visit to an old fashioned country store. "When one enters the door a bell rings, which calls the attendant from the barn...He plunges his unwashed hands into the pork or pickel barrel, cuts cheese or butter, often drawing kerosene and molasses..and wiping the overflow on his coat sleeve...The maple syrup bottles stand near by, and the keeper himself has been seen to take a swallow from them at different times, when his sweet tooth called."

Site reproduction by permission of Scott Bruce. "The Breakfast Cereal Hall of Fame" is a trademark of Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford. Original site design by Elijah Dean "Kaboom" Meeker.

Excerpts are from the book Cerealizing America: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal by Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford

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