Sunday, September 12, 2021

Flashback 1998: A century of cornflakes

     I'm on my way back from the wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula after a fun weekend of hanging with my pals. The paper doesn't let me go to Michigan much on business—off the beaten path. But once I persuaded them that readers would be interested were I to poke around a certain well known Michigan cereal company.

BATTLE CREEK, Mich.—This is the town built on cornflakes.
     Not just cornflakes. Also wheat flakes, bran twists, rice crisps and more.
     But cornflakes, which turn 100 years old this year, are the leader of the pack, the king of the breakfast table, the world's most popular dry cereal.
     The company that invented and first vended the humble flake of corn—the first product it ever sold nationally—has certainly come to dominate life in this modest town of 50,000 souls. A brief drive reveals the Kellogg Regional Airport and the Kellogg Community College, the Kellogg Arena, the W. K. Kellogg Institute for Food and Nutrition Research, not to mention the enormous Kellogg factory and the Kellogg international corporate headquarters, its soaring lobby displaying metal sculptures of stylized wheat stalks and a daily posting of the latest price of Kellogg stock.
     What you can't see are cornflakes being made, not anymore. The popular tours of the Kellogg's plant, part of the childhood memories of millions of Midwesterners, were discontinued in 1986 when a state-of-the-art, $500 million plant expansion opened. The company feared corporate spies.
     Despite secrecy, the manufacturing process is fairly simple: corn arrives in the form of grits. The grits are cooked in large rotary steam cookers, then dried, milled, toasted and sprayed with vitamins.
     The resultant flakes seem fragile to support such huge popularity. Kellogg's sells them in 160 countries. Search for reasons why, and the company, perhaps predictably, points to taste.
     "Simple is good," said Anthony Hebron, a Kellogg's spokesman. "You've got a simple formula; a crispy, golden brown flake with a bit of a nutty taste, a taste that travels well throughout the world."
     The cornflakes success story is more complex than that, of course. Advertising is vital. Kellogg's spends 50 percent more to advertise a box of cornflakes than it does to buy the ingredients inside.
     This is nothing new. Advertising always has been important; the Kellogg's advertising budget first passed $1 million in 1911, five years after the Kellogg Co. was founded by William Keith Kellogg.
     He was the son of a wealthy Michigan broommaker named John Preston Kellogg, who supported the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a sect formed in Battle Creek just before the Civil War and dedicated, among other things, to a strict dietary regimen: no meat, no caffeine, no alcohol. 
     W. K. Kellogg's older brother, John Harvey Kellogg, ran the Adventists' Western Reform Health Institute, turning it into a model sanitarium (a word he coined, along with "granola") visited by the rich and famous of the late 19th century when they needed relief from their killing diets of lamb and eggs and butter and drink. Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller were both guests.
     J. H. Kellogg, a respected doctor, something of a celebrity in his trademark white suits, toured the world dispensing nutritional advice, while his brother, a self-described "flunky," stayed in Battle Creek and kept things running.
     The brothers were constantly experimenting to find ways to get the foods they considered healthful into their sanitarium guests. As with many breakthroughs, the flakes were discovered by accident. The Kelloggs were flattening wheat dough with rollers and baking it in sheets. But W. K. Kellogg left a batch of dough out overnight, so it dried, and when it was run through rollers the next day, it broke into flakes instead of flattening.
     At first, the wheat flakes were served just to customers at the sanitarium. But visitors wrote in, wanting to buy the flakes after they returned home, and in 1896, Kellogg's started selling cereal through the mail.
     Two years later, in 1898, W. K. Kellogg repeated the process for corn—history doesn't preserve the exact date.
     The Kellogg brothers were slow to realize the commercial implications of breakfast cereal. While they were still doling out cornflakes to sanitarium guests, and sending a trickle through the mail, dozens of companies sprang up in Battle Creek to sell cornflakes—Korn-Kinks, None-Such, Checker Brand Corn Flakes, Indian Corn Flakes, Corn-O-Plenty—42 in all, including one founded by a certain C. W. Post, who first made his name with an imitation coffee called Postum.
     Post sold its brand of cornflakes, Post Toasties, before Kellogg's got its on the market. The Post factory is still in Battle Creek, directly across the train tracks from the Kellogg's plant.
     J. H. Kellogg was content running his sanitarium, but his brother yearned to take on a larger challenge. In 1906, he formed W. K. Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flake Co. He was 46 years old.
     Kellogg grabbed attention by running ads—the first, in July, 1906, appeared in 17 major magazines, offering coupons for free samples from local grocers. The hitch was that few grocers carried Kellogg's cornflakes—Kellogg gambled that customers would lobby their local grocer to carry the brand so they could redeem their free coupons. He was right.
     Kellogg tried to distinguish himself from the pack by touting his cornflakes as the original and instructing customers how to walk out in a huff if they weren't available: "What? Have you no Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes! Then bring my hat and coat—I don't want any of your substitutes," read one advertisement.
     Early ads explained that cereal tasted better with milk or cream.
     A survey of the company's archives shows it trying any angle that would boost sales. Cornflakes as a refreshing meal in the un-air-conditioned 1920s. ("Kellogg's for Koolness.") Cornflakes for lunch, "for extra meals at odd hours, for children's suppers" in a 1945 ad.
     Miss America graced boxes of Kellogg's cornflakes, as did Yogi Bear. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson smiled from election-season boxes.
     That year, Kellogg's hit on perhaps its greatest idea for selling cornflakes: sugar. The company's Sugar Frosted Flakes were an immediate hit, as was one of its two mascots, Tony the Tiger. Katy the Kangaroo, the alternate mascot designated for children "scared of tigers," didn't last as long.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 29, 1998


  1. Kinda surprised to see no reference to "The Road to Wellville," featuring Anthony Hopkins as John Harvey Kellogg, in this piece. Perhaps that's because the movie wasn't very good. Still, the wacky Hollywood take on the sanitarium has its moments.

    Regardless, this covered a lot of ground in your usual snappy fashion. Well worth the investment of the paper sending you on the 3-hour pilgrimage to Battle Creek.

    "The company's Sugar Frosted Flakes were an immediate hit" and a new lane was paved on The Road to Obesity.

    1. That is puzzling, because I distinctly remember being excited to find, in the archive, a copy of "The Road To Wellville," the Kellogg pamphlet that gave the novel (and, eventually, your point of reference, the movie) its name.

  2. I remember a tour of the corn flakes plant in Battle Creek, about 1964. The raw wet, corn flakes really stunk before they were baked.

  3. Back in the Fifties, before the interstates were built, my parents would shlep me and my sister onto "The Mercury", the New York Central's Art Deco passenger train, so we could visit our Michigan cousins. Sometimes we took "The Wolverine"...the train that Steely Dan sang about. The tracks went right past the Kellogg plant in Battle Creek. You couldn't miss it. Big signs.

    We also made the same trip in our '49 Plymouth, so we could spent time at the lakeside resorts in South Haven. While traveling along U.S. 12, my parents repeatedly promised us that we would tour the corn flakes factory "someday"--but it never happened. That's the way parents are. Same thing with the Kedzie Avenue carbarns, near my old school, where the big red Pullman streetcars were housed. A tour of that facility would have been much, much better than Battle Creek.

    Oh, well, at least I got to tour the Mars candy plant, on Oak Park Avenue. I was eleven. My kid sister, who was seven, asked the tour guide if she could "lick the beaters"...

    1. Grizz, the Chicago Architecture Center conducts Open House Chicago each October, which "offers access to hundreds of sites across Chicago, from iconic locations to under-the-radar architectural gems."

      A few years ago they added a tour of the Skokie Shops, the "CTA's heavy maintenance facility for the entire fleet of railcars on the 'L' rapid transit system."

      We were delighted to visit the location the first year they offered it. In addition to seeing the facility, the tour started out by having us board an old-model CTA car at the Skokie Swift station to ride along a spur to the Shops. The whole thing was pretty cool.

      Sorry -- I'm sure you'd have noted what model rail-car we were on, and its exact age, but I'm not that level of correspondent, alas. ; )

    2. Grizz . It was recently announced that Pullman has tours of buildings and restored cars . I'm looking forward to heading down

    3. Did you mean the Pullman neighborhood, south of East 111th Street? Been there. Love that place. Ate at the old lorence Hotel in the Eighties.

      Or were you talking about the Pullman facilities and shops? I thought they were closed and abandoned a long time ago. Then they were supposed to be recycled into something, but burned down first. Or am I mistaken about all that?

    4. Jakash: Do you remember what the Skokie Swift car looked like? Could have been one of the 4000 series, from the Twenties. More likely it was either a 6000, built in the early Fifties, or one of the high-speed cars from the Sixties. The best Skokie cars were the articulated 5000s, built in 1947.

      I know about the Open Hpuse Chicago tours, but I've never made any October treks from Ohio in order to partake of the "hidden gems." Just for those rare Cub playoff games. Never been inside the Skokie Shops, either, but knew them well. Lived nearby as a kid, and used to catch the #97 Oakton bus in front of the Shops, before the Swift began service to Howard.

      South of the Skokie Shops, there were dozens of old cars from different eras, just rotting away on their storage tracks, or being used as tool sheds. One memorable day, while on my way to a Cub game, I almost choked on heavy smoke. The CTA was burning a whole row of wooden 'L' cars, from the earliest days of the century. They'd finally been retired, but only after a train caught fire on what is now the Red Line. Then the CTA started torching them in Skokie.

      Those wooden cars were still in service when I was a kid, and I took my earliest 'L' rides on them. I'm actually that old.

    5. Seeing "a whole row of wooden 'L' cars" on fire on your way by sounds cool, Grizz.

      Poking around online, it seems that in 2019, they used restored 1959-vintage cars (6000 series.) But the year we went, they used the old orange-and-brown 4000 series cars. You've prompted me to look back at some photos, which I hadn't bothered to look at before my post about this, so I can report that we rode on cars 4271 - 4272, which were delivered in 1923 from the Cincinnati Car Company at a cost of $22,900 per car. They last "saw revenue service in 1973." And my previous comment was wrong in at least 2 respects. We didn't go there the first year the tour was offered, and the train left from Howard. Such is the accuracy of my memory.

      If you'd like to get a feel for some of what could be seen on the tour from the comfort of your Cleveland home, here is a very thorough report on the 2019 tour taken by a much more dedicated participant than I was the year before.

    6. Thanks! When I lived in (East) Rogers Park in the early 70s, I often rode the Evanston Express downtown, because it still stopped at Morse and Loyola then. And most of the time, I rode on those same 1923 4000s. Made me feel like I needed a fedora and a hip flask.

      When my father was a boy, in the 20s and 30s, he probably rode the same cars to the Loop. And in the Fifties, as a kid, I could see them from his office window, when they stopped at LaSalle and Van Buren. Some 35 years later, I passed through that same stop every weekday. I need a Chicago fix. Haven't visited since the weekend when...the Cubs won the pennant. Still feels funny to be able to type those five words.


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