How Cereal Became the Quintessential American Breakfast

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[Photograph: Mike Mozart, Flickr]

Chances are, it's never struck you as particularly odd that there's an entire supermarket aisle devoted to nothing but cereal. For most of us, cereal is the ultimate convenient breakfast, and even the most sugary of varieties claim to offer nutritional benefits and a balanced start to your day. Every brand is trying to convince you it's something different, something better, and there's probably at least one you're buying into. The "kids only" sugar bombs boast whole grains, and Special K comes studded with chocolate bits and sweet yogurt clusters.

But it wasn't always that way. Cereal's position as America's default breakfast food is a remarkable feat, not of flavor or culture, but of marketing and packaging design. It's a century-long history of advertising, a brilliant campaign that capitalized on the intersection of industrialization, health-consciousness, and changing class attitudes that completely upended the way Americans ate. And it all began at a moment when products were primed to transcend regional tastes through the rise of mass-marketing.

Cereal as Health Food

"America at the turn of the century was just as vast and varied as it is now," explains historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman. "Fannie Farmer's The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, from 1906, which I think is a decent judge of what the average, multi-generational, Midwestern or New England American family is eating or aspiring to eat, is showing a meal that includes: fruit; hot cereal like Quaker oats or hominy; a substantial meat like beefsteak, 'warmed over lamb,' or broiled halibut; potatoes, toast, or muffins; or, of course, coffee." In other words, a breakfast of just hominy or porridge was considered a nutritionally unbalanced poor family's breakfast—not exactly something you'd aspire to. Cereal changed all of that.

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[Photograph courtesy of Kellogg's]

Breakfast cereal as a thing can be attributed to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg who ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium, an acclaimed Seventh-Day Adventist health and wellness resort in Michigan. "If you were upper-middle class and above, it was a fashionable place to go get treated for a variety of maladies, or just to go for your general health," says Lohman. Kellogg, a staunch vegetarian who was especially interested in bowel movements, advocated eating everything from seaweed to yogurt to nuts and grains—a radical turn from America's meat-centric diet. Of course, most of us know the Kellogg name from Corn Flakes, which, the story goes, were first invented at "The San" after some dough turned stale and they tried to bake it anyway.

To be fair, there had been earlier innovations in porridge, such as Granula, "The Cereal You Have To Soak Overnight," but that catchy tagline didn't exactly communicate convenience. Then, in 1895, C.W. Post, a former patient at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, became so impressed with Kellogg's grain experimentation that he founded his very own cereal company. His creation was Postum, a "cereal beverage intended to replace coffee in the morning," explains Tony Shurman, General Manager of Post Foods. Early ads warned consumers of the "evils of caffeine," assuring them that their children would benefit from a steady diet of Postum in its place.

That same year, Dr. Kellogg and his brother Will began experimenting with various ready-to-eat grain flakes, and packaging them for sale. A box of Granose Flakes from 1898 simply stated "ENRICH THE BLOOD," a reference to the nutritional benefits the Kelloggs attributed to a vegetarian, grain-filled diet. This message was central to early cereal packaging, when brands were fighting not just for shelf space, but to convince the average American to do away with that traditional, meat-laden six-course breakfast.

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[Photograph courtesy of Post]

But Post beat Kellogg to the wider market with his ready-to-eat Grape Nuts, developed in 1897. On this box (apparently made in the US but marketed to an English audience), Post claimed that consumers would get more "nourishment from 1 pound of Grape Nuts than from 10 lbs of MEAT, WHEAT, OATS OR BREAD." Another advertisement from 1903 promised that Grape Nuts were the key to kicking your liquor habit. These claims were largely accepted since, unlike other more straightforward cereals, no one knew what the hell a Grape Nut was. "Grape Nuts was people eating advertising," Carin Gendell, senior brand manager in the 1980s, told The Wall Street Journal.

By 1906, Will Kellogg had pried the rights to both Corn Flakes and the Kellogg name from his brother, following a dispute over ingredients—namely, Will's desire to add sugar to their original recipe. The first boxes of Kellogg's Corn Flakes were surprisingly simple, and their campaign focused on flavor (honestly, not all that much has changed in the last 100 years). They promised flakes "deliciously flavored with sugar, malt and salt," and so "delicious, and distinctive in flavor" that children would beg for it. But there were no screeds about health benefits, perhaps because Kellogg didn't need to advertise; at that point, their nutritionally-minded reputation preceded them. Kellogg also focused on ensuring customers bought the "genuine" product, as numerous competitors with their own corn flake cereals began to crop up.

At this point, Americans were buying cereal because they were intrigued by notorious figures like Kellogg—it was, first and foremost, a popular curiosity. To achieve real legitimacy, the industry still had to wage a war on two fronts. The first, against competitors; the second against the deeply entrenched idea of what really constituted a hearty American breakfast. It was one thing to have a product on the shelves, but another entirely to make consumers see it as a daily necessity. Many package designs, then, focused on the completeness of a bowl of cereal; how, Fannie Farmer be damned, this one box contained everything you needed.

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[Photograph courtesy of General Mills]

In 1922, a box of Washburn's Whole Wheat Flakes (later known as General Mills' Wheaties) called it "A Perfect Food; Ready to Eat." Post Toasties dubbed itself a "4 Star Breakfast Treat," combining flavor, nourishment, vitamins and "economy" in one box. More than anything, these cereals promised ease for the American housewife. She could make her life more convenient while still nurturing and providing for her family. And the idea was catching.

The Rise of the Mascot

Original box designs, advertisements, and supplementary nutritional inserts were geared toward adult concerns like health, cost, and convenience—nobody saw the value of marketing to children. That changed in 1909, when Kellogg's introduced the first-ever cereal box prize aimed at younger demographics.

Anyone who bought two boxes of Corn Flakes would receive the Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Booklet, a colorful book of animal illustrations, either from their grocer or through a mail-in order. The campaign persisted for a whopping 23 years—Kellog's had discovered that children could be just as valuable of a market as their parents, and soon competitors were following suit. By the middle of the 20th century, especially in the post-war years, advertisers were catering to children and teenagers as a distinct and profitable demographic. With radios, and then televisions, in the household, products could be advertised to them directly, which they in turn requested by name.

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[Photograph courtesy of Post]

"In 1949, Sugar Crisp had the distinction of being the first cereal to have an animated television commercial," says Shurman. It featured three bears—Handy, Dandy and Candy—though years later, the cereal's mascot would change to the affable Sugar Bear. It was also one of the first cereals to come substantially pre-sweetened, though Shurman explains that's just because technology finally caught up to what everyone was already doing at home—dumping sugar on their grain flakes. With this new development, you didn't even need milk. Sugar Crisp boasted "It's fun to eat plain—right out of the package!" Even without their mascot, Sugar Crisp demonstrated how advertising was switching gears from focusing on parents to focusing on kids. "Ask your mom to get a package of our favorite cereal, Post Sugar Crisp," says Roy Rogers in this ad at the end of his TV show.

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[Photograph courtesy of Kellogg's]

Other brands were deploying the same techniques, with Kellogg introducing Corn Pops in 1950 and Frosted Flakes in 1952, and General Mills unveiling Trix in 1954. Early boxes of Corn Pops made sure consumers knew about these new developments, emphasizing "Pre-sweetened" and "No sugar needed." Many of these new flavors also came with their own cartoon mascots, though they were more likely to grace kids' TV screens than the boxes of cereal themselves. TV was where the kids could get hooked, with Tony the Tiger (debuted in 1952), the Trix rabbit (1959) and Sonny the Cuckoo bird (1962). They didn't care what the box looked like yet, as long as what was in it was what the mascots were telling them to eat. The boxes were still aimed at parents, concerned more about the health of their child than the cartoons they wouldn't shut up about. This box of Cocoa Puffs from the late 1950s still highlights that it's a corn cereal, as does this 1964 box of Trix, even though the rabbit was there, too. And Lucky Charms' original box advertises the "goodness in toasted oat cereal." They didn't even coat the oat bits in sugar until 1967.

Through the 1960s, cereal boxes increasingly focused more on taste, fun, and flavor innovations, not on convincing consumers they need cereal in the first place—that work had already been done. Customers already knew that cereal was what they should be eating for breakfast, so the advertising shifted, focusing on which cereal to buy and what perks it offered. Cereal companies could play up technological advances that allowed for sugar coatings, bright colors, and freeze-dried fruit to be added. All that sugar? It was a selling point: It added energy! Flavor! It was baked right in so you didn't have to sprinkle it on yourself!

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Cereal consumption was going strong; cereal was so ubiquitous that it no longer had to sell itself as "a perfect food." There was a range of different markets, and brands were beginning to diversify. Cereal could appeal to kids by being sweet and colorful, like Cocoa Pebbles or Sir Grapefellow, and include toys, giveaways, and games right on the box. Children were told not just about the sugary taste, but the figurines they could win, the sweepstakes they could enter, or the athletes and celebrities who graced the box. The ad copy may have told parents about its vitamin content, but that information was increasingly obscured by other advertising campaigns and flashy designs. A 1971 box of Cap'n Crunch doesn't even say what it's made of, just that it "stays crunchy even in milk." Cereal had to be as fun as the mascots made it look in the ads, and sometimes even the healthy cereals couldn't resist getting in on the promotions. For a while, you could send away to Cheerios for Confederate money.

Then there were the healthier cereals that continued marketing to adults, like Corn Flakes, whose ads featured the cereal laden with fresh strawberries, or Grape Nuts, which began focusing on its protein content. They stayed attuned to the diet fads of the day, like "diet" cereals for calorie counters, and stuck with the messaging that one bowl could be all you needed. When introduced in 1967, Product 19 advertised it was for "working mothers, otherwise busy mothers and everyone in a hurry," and provided 100% of your daily vitamin needs. Cereal could also be a snack, like Sugar Crisp claimed, or more than just a meal by itself. Many brands attracted buyers with recipes, hoping their product could move beyond the breakfast bowl, like a Cheerios recipe booklet that said you could crush them up and use them to bread pork chops.

The End of an Era

By the 1970s and 1980s, our belief that a bowl of cereal—any cereal—could suffice as a complete breakfast began to crack. Sugar that had once been a selling point was increasingly vilified as a dietary enemy. Then, in 1972 Dr. Atkins and others began preaching the dangers of carbohydrates, and low-carb diets became increasingly popular. Suddenly, those grains weren't looking so healthy anymore. We had ceased to believe that a bowl of Grape Nuts could cure your alcoholism, or that a bowl of Lucky Charms had enough oats in it to counteract all those marshmallows.

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[Photograph courtesy of General Mills]

Healthy cereals seemed to double down on their efforts to convince consumers they were full of vitamins, protein, fiber, or whatever else they were seeking. Sugar Crisp was renamed Golden Crisp. Kellogg's and General Mills both introduced granola cereals as more interesting and flavorful alternatives to the grain flakes and puffs that had dominated the healthy cereal market. In the early 1970s, Cheerios let consumers know that it was made of "the grain highest in protein," and in 1977 Wheaties proclaimed that it provided 25% of your daily vitamin needs, while continuing its long association with sports. In 1984 they had their first female athlete on the box, and by 1986 they had their first NFL player, a huge jump from the golfers and Olympians of the past.

Of course, companies kept churning out every iteration of sugar-bomb cereal, but those were now winked at as "part of this complete breakfast." You wouldn't just serve your children Pop Tarts Crunch by itself, but throw in some fruit, orange juice, milk and maybe eggs, and it's a perfectly fine component to include. The Fannie Farmer breakfast resurfaced.

Then, The Nutrition and Labeling and Education Act of 1990 passed, ensuring that all products acquired the now-familiar list of "Nutrition Facts"; it became a lot easier to see just what your cereal had to offer. According to NPR, cereal consumption peaked in 1996 and has been on a steady decline ever since. Nicholas Fereday, a food investment analyst, told The New York Times that it's been "a death by a thousand cuts," affected by everything from declining birth rates (fewer children, cereal's biggest consumers) to changing tastes to increased gluten intolerance. About 18% of American's don't even eat breakfast, up from 6% in 1977, and for those that do, they're increasingly turning to the wider variety of options available, from oatmeal to eggs to granola bars to fast food. Harry Balzer, a food researcher, told NPR, "We keep looking for what's the most convenient way to take care of that 12 minutes that we have to eat in the morning time...What's the easiest way to do that? And a bowl of cereal—you got to dirty a bowl. You got to dirty a spoon. You got to clean that stuff."

Cereal's advertising campaigns still attempt to address these individual issues. If you're concerned about dirtying a bowl, you can buy disposable, single-serving cereal packs. If you're worried about sugar content, Lucky Charms advertises its whole grains and vitamins, and Corn Pops says it only has "a touch of sweetness." Concerned that your healthy cereal will be bland and flavorless? Try Honey Bunches of Oats filled with vanilla yogurt clusters and chocolate bits. Wheaties says you should pair it with chocolate milk, perhaps in hopes that the combination will liven up a bowl of plain grain flakes. It's supposed to be filling, nutritious, tasty and, most of all, convenient. It's in crisis mode, back to fighting for space on the shelf, trying to convince you it's Fannie Farmer's five courses rolled into one.