The Corn Flakes that Fueled the American Worker

Of all the CPGs to rise during the late nineteen, early twentieth century, few have the level of drama the story of Kellogs has. What started out as a wellness product, soon turned into a national brand that two brothers went to court over. 


Modern cereal got its start in a place few would expect. During the 1870s, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg founded the Battle Creek Sanitorium in Battle Creek, Michigan. The Sanitorium was designed to be a medical spa and resort that drew guidance from his Adventist health principles. This meant relinquishing all fatty, greasy, salty and spicy foods in favor of a strict vegetarian diet. As part of these guiding principles, Dr. Kellogg, his brother Will, and his wife Ella, sought out to create a healthy, bland snack that would calm the soul and remove any “deviant” thoughts. They spent countless hours coming up with various bland products meant to improve wellness. Their most famous creation, though, would come about by accident. On a brief aside, it should be noted that the exact accounts of the product’s creation vary due to the litigious aftermath of the product’s founding (more on this later). One night in 1898, a batch of wheat-based cereal dough was accidentally left out in the open. This caused the dough to ferment and become crispy and tasty in the oven. After a few years of experimenting, Dr. Kellogg replaced the wheat with corn, which made for an even crunchier and crispier flake.


Dr. John Kellogg continued to serve and sell this “wellness” product for years, but his brother, Will, had more ambitious ideas. Fed up working for his brother, Will bought the rights to the crunchy product. Will wanted to add more mass appeal to the cereal by adding salt, malt, and sugar to the dough. This furthered the already splintering relationship between the two brothers. Will eventually left the sanatorium and founded the W.K. Kellogg company in 1906. Will would ultimately prove the more successful of the two. By 1909, Will’s company would pump out 120,000 boxes of the cereal a day. This success irked John to no end, and the relationship would continue to deteriorate. In 1910, Will sued Dr. Kellogg over the naming rights. This drama would drag on for years in court, until the Michigan supreme court sided with Will in 1920.


Despite the drama and the infighting, the Kelloggs helped usher in a cereal revolution that changed the way Americans eat breakfast. As the industrial revolution rolled around, the meat-heavy breakfast that many Americans were eating proved to be detrimental. Eat a lot of meat and then try to spend hours working heavy machinery. Odds are you won’t last very long. Cereals, among them Kellogg, provided a quick, easy meal, time was at a premium, that was much gentler on the stomach during the long hours in the factory. Today, many of us continue to use cereal as our go to breakfast meal. For this, you can thank the Kelloggs.