When Corn Flakes Were Part of an Anti-Masturbation Crusade
In the 18th and 19th centuries, much of the world worked itself into a tizzy over the idea of people touching themselves. While masturbation was never favored in Judeo-Christian tradition, Victorian morality, along with the Great Awakening and other religious revivals in America, created a perfect storm for people to really get obsessed with it.
Books like Ononia: Or, the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences (In Both Sexes) Consider’d (1730) and Samuel Tissot’s Treatise on the Diseases Produced by Onanism (translated from French in 1766) laid the groundwork for pathologizing “the solitary vice.” Soon, masturbation was no longer considered just a moral failing, but also a physical and mental ailment that required treatment and cures.
In the young United States, one of the loudest anti-masturbation voices was John Harvey Kellogg, a physician and devout Seventh-Day Adventist in Battle Creek, Michigan. In addition to running his successful surgery practice, Kellogg edited Good Health, the church’s magazine promoting Adventist beliefs in healthy living, such as adopting a vegetarian diet; abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine; and getting plenty of fresh air and exercise. (Unfortunately, the magazine under Kellogg’s leadership espoused eugenics and outdated anthropological notions as well.)
In this vein, the doctor had also come to believe that sex—including masturbation—was detrimental to physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. He personally abstained from it, and never consummated his marriage (and may have actually spent his honeymoon working on one of his anti-sex books). He and his wife kept separate bedrooms; they adopted eight children and fostered another 34.
In his 1877 book Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life, Kellogg cataloged 39 different symptoms liable to affect a chronic masturbator, including general infirmity, defective development, mood swings, fickleness, bashfulness, boldness, bad posture, stiff joints, fondness for spicy foods, acne, palpitations, and epilepsy.
Kellogg’s solution to all this suffering was a healthy diet. He thought that meat and certain flavorful or seasoned foods increased sexual desire, and that plainer food, especially cereals and nuts, could curb it—an idea proposed in the mid-19th century by Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister and eponym of the graham cracker. While Kellogg worked as the superintendent at Michigan’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, he hit upon a few different healthy eating ideas. Two became breakfast staples and one (thankfully) didn’t.
It’s All in the Diet
Early in his tenure at the sanitarium, Kellogg created a “health treat” for the patients that consisted of oatmeal and corn meal baked into biscuits and then ground into tiny pieces. He called it “granula.” But a very similar product with the same name was already being made and sold by James Caleb Jackson, another dietary reformer. Under the threat of a lawsuit, Kellogg changed the name of his creation to “granola.”
Another of Kellogg’s health innovations, developed to clean out one‘s guts of impure materials, was an enema machine that ran water through the bowel and then followed it with a pint of yogurt—half delivered through the mouth and the other half through the anus. Unlike his granola, this invention didn’t really catch on.
Later, Kellogg developed a few different flaked-grain breakfast cereals—including corn flakes—as healthy, ready-to-eat, easily digestible morning meals. He partnered with his brother Will, the sanitarium’s bookkeeper, to make and sell them to the public. Will had less interest in dietary purity and more business sense than his brother, and worried that the products wouldn’t sell as they were. He wanted to add sugar to the flakes to make them more palatable, but John wouldn’t hear of it. Will eventually started selling the cereals through his own business, which became the Kellogg Company; the brothers feuded for decades after.
While cereals and yogurt enemas might have kept most people morally in line, Kellogg also supported more extreme measures—stuff that would get your medical license revoked and lead to many, many lawsuits today—for people with particularly persistent masturbation habits. Fortunately, those methods didn’t catch on either, which is why we generally remember Kellogg for his tasty breakfast cereals and not for his anti-sex crusade.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.