How Corn Flakes Revolutionized Breakfast

Howard Markel’s new book, “The Kelloggs,” reveals the creation of this quintessential American pantry staple.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

It is impossible for someone born after World War I to appreciate the stunning sensation ready-to-eat breakfast cereals created at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Long before that event, many American housewives prepared hot cereals from grains such as oats, barley, buckwheat, and corn. Bowls of this thick or thin mess, depending upon one’s budget, were alternatively called “porridge,” “gruel,” or “mush.” It required hours of boiling and cooking to soften up the grain, meaning the cook had to awaken quite early before she could serve it to her family. Other common breakfasts of this era, were comprised of salt pork products, gravies, syrup, hot milk, and boiled coffee. These meals, too, required a great deal of work and time, especially in the days when stoves were powered by wood fires that had to be lit and tended. None, then or now, are desirable chores upon arising from a deep slumber, a hard night of insomnia, or, especially, after taking care of one’s younger (and all too awake) children.

Oats, in the form of “oatmeal,” first emerged as a popular and faster option for a hot, healthy, filling grain breakfast in 1875. The “father” of this now familiar cereal was Henry Parsons Crowell, an evangelical Christian businessman from Cleveland. Casting about for a milling company to launch, Crowell was impressed by the methods of an irascible German American miller named Ferdinand Schumacher. With machinery Schumacher designed himself, oat kernels were cracked into tiny cubes and, thus, easier to boil and soften. Even with this preparation, however, many customers still complained that the preparation time for the new “cracked oats” product was not all that faster than the older methods. Crowell also had difficulties developing an affordable way to ramp up Schumacher’s inefficient “oat-cracking” machinery. Everything changed, however, when one of Crowell’s employees, William Heston, rigged a series of rollers and blades for cutting the oats so that they could be far more easily milled, rolled, and packaged. The greatest feature of Crowell’s oatmeal, beyond its nutritional value, was that it required far less time to cook than traditional porridge.

By 1883, Crowell was successfully producing his rolled oats (often in bitter competition with Ferdinand Schumacher) at a mill in Ravenna, Ohio, thirty-five miles outside of Cleveland. Working with several other millers in Ohio, he organized the Consolidated Oatmeal Company in 1887. As a means of promoting the firm’s integrity and the product’s healthy qualities, Crowell named his product “Quaker Oats.” He also innovated the practice of selling his cereal in individual packages, rather than the older method of sending barrels of the stuff to full-service grocers who would then dole out the amount a customer requested. The sales of his red, round, sealed, and hygienic two-pound canisters, featuring a reassuring “Quaker Man” on the label, were terrific. Oatmeal soon became a popular breakfast option; but even with Crowell’s new “rolled oat” process, preparing it was hardly “instant” by today’s microwave standards. Consequently, making oatmeal during this period still signified a time burden for millions of women who had more than enough menial tasks to complete every morning in addition to making the family breakfast.

It was at this point when the Kellogg brothers made their entrée into the breakfast business. Unfortunately, telling this story is difficult because so many conflicting narrative strands have convoluted it. There is John’s version and, of course, a slightly different version from Will on how, beginning in the 1880s, they discovered a process that converted wheat dough into flakes. John’s wife, Ella, also insists she played a seminal role in the proceedings. And there exist accounts by a few early Sanitarium employees who claimed minor roles as well. We must also factor in versions of the Kelloggs’ chief rivals, who were just as eager to create and control the highly profitable ready-to-eat cereal manufacturing industry. The most interesting competitor was Henry Perky, who invented Shredded Wheat. The Kellogg brothers’ most unlikable foe was Charles W. Post, who made bundles of cash after stealing and manufacturing many of the doctor’s and Will’s most successful recipes. And then there are the reams of conflicting secondary historical and journalistic accounts. As a result, recounting and accommodating all the multiple “histories” of the origins of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes is neither a simple nor a linear task.

What is not in dispute is the germinating idea behind the whole enterprise. While still a busy medical student at Bellevue, John was frustrated with the time and effort it took to prepare a nourishing, inexpensive hot breakfast out of whole grains. Making mushes of oats, barley, or wheat just took too long to accommodate his busy schedule of lectures, hospital rounds, and cramming pages of medical knowledge into his brain. Years later, John described his “Eureka moment” in great detail:

“As a boy of 14 years old I became very much interested in a scientific way of eating; read books thereon and resolved to adopt and follow during my lifetime a scientific or biologic diet. When a student in normal school I made experiments to ascertain the cost of living; was paying my way through school, rented a room, paid the landlady for cooking for me but I furnished foods for myself, [and] made an observation that it cost me six cents a day for a period of three months; I continued these experiments and others as to the cost of a biologic diet; later in New York as a medical student in 1874 I rented a room and boarded myself, purchasing raw materials and prepared it. One day I found in the market a package of food, oatmeal labeled “steam cooked.” However, I found it as raw as any. That brought me to think it important to prepare cooked foods to be bought at market in packages, ready for immediate use and I resolved to give that consideration.”

Beyond convenience or affordability, John’s long search for a ready-to-eat, “already cooked” cereal centered on his clinical studies of the disabled gastrointestinal system, which he so often treated among his many patients at the San. The doctor sought “to displace the half-cooked, pasty, dyspepsia-producing breakfast mush” with a healthier whole grain version that stimulated and aided the digestive process. Digestibility rather than profitability was John’s main concern in the development of flaked cereals. This focus placed Dr. Kellogg in the center of a scientific revolution then occurring in understanding the gastrointestinal system. Indeed, at the turn of the twentieth century, gastroenterology was a field as productive and intellectually exciting as the burgeoning fields of bacteriology and surgery. Such enthusiasm for the vague and testy workings of the gut was hardly confined to the scientific literature. In a society beleaguered by upset stomachs and constipation, large numbers of people, on both sides of the Atlantic, followed the progress then being made in gastrointestinal research and consumed a long list of best-selling books and magazine articles on the topic.

Howard Markel’s new book, The Kelloggs, is available now.

Excerpted from The Kelloggs by Howard Markel. Copyright © 2017 by Howard Markel. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.