Masturbation and Mascots: The Strange History of Cereal

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In the 19th century, masturbation was a public health crisis. At least, that's how some Christian fundamentalists viewed it. Anti-masturbation crusaders blamed self-gratification for a list of ailments, including blindness, infertility, epilepsy, insanity, and a fondness for spicy foods. That last one actually came from one anti-masturbation crusader in particular: an American doctor named John Harvey Kellogg.

Kellogg had a lot of ideas about the relationship between diet and masturbation. He thought the urge to self-stimulate, or self-pollute, as he called it, was related to eating meat and seasoned foods. To treat the problem, along with a host of other potential health issues, he recommended a bland diet consisting of fare like nuts and cereal grains. He even concocted some recipes that fit his health philosophy. As the superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a trendy wellness retreat in Michigan, he served guests crushed-up biscuits made from wheat, corn, and oats. He dubbed the concoction “granola.” A breakfast breakthrough? Debatable. A few years earlier, a different diet guru named James Caleb Jackson was making a similar snack food called granula. Kellogg had mostly “innovated” the product by changing the U in granula to an O, which also helped him avoid lawsuits.

Kellogg’s biggest contribution to the food industry should be familiar to anyone who’s perused a cereal aisle. In collaboration with his brother Will, a bookkeeper at Battle Creek Sanitarium, John created the breakfast cereal that came to be known as corn flakes by rolling corn grits into flakes and toasting them in the oven. William took the lead on selling the product to consumers outside the sanitarium, and he was much less interested in its supposed solo-sex-stopping powers than his brother. Kellogg’s corn flakes were never advertised as the edible equivalent of a cold shower, and it’s misleading to state that they were invented to put an end to onanism. But with John’s entreaties to limit oneself to “the most simple, pure, and unstimulating diet” as a way of warding off arousal—especially advocating for a diet with lots of grains and milk—it’s fair say the anti-masturbation movement is a legitimate, if tangential, part of the cereal’s beginnings.

Charles W. Post and the Selling of Cereal

From health trends to the evolution of marketing, we can learn a lot about American culture from the history of breakfast cereal. But before we dig our spoons in, let's get our terminology straight. Merriam-Webster defines cereal as starchy, edible grains and the plants that produce them, such as wheat, oat, and barley. Cereal is also a general term for processed food made from cereal grains.

Cereal is heavily promoted today, with an advertising-to-sales ratio four to six times higher than most other food categories. That pattern can be traced back to cereal’s early history. In the late 19th century, the Battle Creek Sanitarium served a guest named Charles W. Post, who quickly took note of the Kelloggs’ successful operation. Post was a salesman, and he saw potential for the products being served at the Sanitarium to take over the breakfast table. In 1897, he developed Grape-Nuts, a crumbled biscuit cereal (which, much to the delight of observational comedians, contains neither grapes nor nuts).

What Post really brought to the breakfast cereal game was marketing savvy. Prior to the 20th century, advertising was often associated with snake-oil—it had a seedy reputation. This didn’t deter the salesman. Post printed pamphlets claiming that Grape-Nuts could cure appendicitis and even that just eight teaspoons of the stuff gave enough strength to cycle 50 miles. Using flashy ads with specious health claims to sell food was a risky move, but it paid off. By 1903, Post’s marketing strategy had made him a millionaire.

Post didn’t invent breakfast cereal, but he did make it a competitive industry. Following the success of Grape-Nuts, William Kellogg emulated Post’s model. He ignored his brother’s resistance to advertising and launched a campaign encouraging people to "Wink at the grocer, and see what you get." It apparently worked: Kellogg’s sold 1 million boxes within a year. The success of Grape-Nuts and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes drew more entrepreneurs to Battle Creek. By 1911, there were 108 brands of corn flakes, with 60 of them coming right from Battle Creek.

The Making of Mascots

With so many cereals competing for customers, brands needed a way to stand out. That’s where mascots came in. One of the first cereals to use a cartoon character to move merchandise was a wheat-based cereal called Force. Its mascot—the dapper, top hat-wearing Sunny Jim—was a hit in magazine and newspaper advertisements. His popularity helped make mascots standard on cereal boxes.

Not every mascot was as well-received as Sunny Jim. After hitting the jackpot with Grape-Nuts, Charles Post introduced his own corn flakes to the market called Elijah's Manna. The packaging showed the prophet Elijah receiving food from a raven, a design choice that didn’t sit well with some Christians. Britain went so far as to ban all imports of the item. Post tried defending himself, saying, “Perhaps no one should eat angel food cake, enjoy Adam's ale, live in St. Paul, nor work for Bethlehem Steel […] one should have his Adam's apple removed and never again name a child for the good people of the bible.” His argument didn’t seem to win over many critics, though.

Some cereal companies figured out they didn’t need to create characters from scratch to sell their products. One of the first programs to feature embedded advertising for cereal was a radio show called Skippy. In the middle of an episode, the title character would stop what he was doing to pitch Wheaties to listeners. This was also the first instance of a cereal brand directly targeting young consumers. The ad was a hit, and soon other beloved characters were shilling cereal on their radio shows.

Post, for his part, found a less controversial mascot. He had given in and changed the name of Elijah’s Manna to the inoffensive-sounding Post Toasties and removed the biblical figure from the box. He eventually collaborated with Walt Disney to feature Mickey Mouse as a Post mascot. It’s said that Post paid a million dollars for the opportunity ... in the 1930s, during the height of the Great Depression. A bevy of similar licensing deals actually financed Disney’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

That’s just one example of cereal companies workshopping their mascots before getting them right. Five years after debuting Rice Krispies in 1928, Kellogg’s added a cartoon gnome to the box named Snap. Crackle and Pop (who our fact checker pointed out have no “canonical familial relationship” with Snap) only appeared in print ads, not joining Snap on the package until 1941. Early promos introduced three more characters to the extended Rice Krispie-verse:< a href="">Soggy, Mushy, and Toughy. Unlike the original trio, their evil alter-egos didn’t stick around.

The battle between crunchiness and sogginess is a running theme in cereal ads. In the 1960s, Quaker Oats developed the character Cap’n Crunch in response to a report that kids hated soggy cereal. Marketing was such a crucial part of selling cereal by this point that Quaker had come up with the mascot before figuring out what Cap’n Crunch would taste like. Cap’n Crunch’s full name, by the way, is Horatio Magellan Crunch.

John Kellogg was adamant about keeping sugar out of corn flakes, so it’s probably for the best that he wasn’t around to see Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes in 1952. Tony the Tiger has been the face of the product since its launch, but even more iconic than the character’s face is his voice. (Thurl Ravenscroft, who voiced Tony for more than 50 years, also sang "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.)

Some cereal mascots faced a bumpier road. About a decade after rolling out Lucky Charms in 1964, General Mills quietly replaced Lucky the Leprechaun with Waldo the Wizard in select markets. They feared that the thieving leprechaun could come off as too abrasive and hoped the friendly wizard would better appeal to kids. In the end, Waldo was given his walking papers and Lucky returned to his rightful place as the purveyor of hearts, stars, horseshoes, clovers and/or blue moons.

Cereal's TV Debut

When television replaced radio as the primary mode of home entertainment, cereal brands wasted no time exploiting it. They used the same strategy of in-program marketing, only now it was Howdy Doody and Roy Rogers doing the selling instead of Skippy. This was also when cereal mascots were being brought to life in commercials. Unlike radio spots, TV ads put the actual product in front of consumers’ eyes. That meant cereal companies had a vested interest in making the medium look as good as possible. Many of them poured money into early television technology, which helped fund such developments as color pictures. From then on, brands with colorful mascots—and colorful cereal—had an advantage.

In the 1980s, companies found a new way to use pre-existing properties to sell products. Suddenly, it seemed that every character from pop culture was plastered on their own box of cereal. Highlights from the era of tie-in novelty cereals include Gremlins cereal, Mr. T cereal, and C-3PO’s. Where debuting an original cereal could cost companies $40 million in marketing in the first year, launching a cereal based on an existing property with built-in recognition cost more like $10 to $12 million. Even a Cabbage Patch Kids cereal sold well, initially. The downside was that buyers were only interested in these products for a year or two before sales dipped. The one exception was Ralston Purina’s Ghostbusters cereal, which sold well for an impressive five years straight.

Sugar Added

Many of today's cereals don’t quite fit John Kellogg’s vision of a bland, ostensibly healthy breakfast. Added sugar started showing up in ingredients lists shortly after cereal was first marketed to children, but instead of shifting away from the health-food label, companies found a way to have their Cookie Crisp and eat it too. They produced ads claiming that the sugar in cereal gave kids the energy they needed to kick start their day.

The campaign was effective, and health trends in 20th century America reinforced cereal’s wholesome reputation. In 1967, Harvard nutritionists Dr. Fredrick Stare and Mark Hegsted published two studies linking dietary fat and cholesterol to heart disease and downplaying the role of sugar. This approach to health was echoed by experts in the decades that followed. When the USDA introduced its food pyramid in 1992, it had protein sources like meat, fish, and nuts one level from the top with carbs like bread, pasta, and cereal making up the much larger base.

But the Harvard studies supporting a low-fat diet may have had a hidden agenda. A 2016 study revealed that the research had been initiated and funded by the Sugar Research Foundation, a trade group trying to boost sugar’s image with health-conscious consumers. Numerous studies have since emphasized the nutritional value of certain fats and the risks of excess sugar, and the food pyramid that technically endorsed six to 11 servings of cereal a day has been abandoned by the government.

A story that began, in some ways, with unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of a bland diet mutated, somewhere along the way, to unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of sugar-loaded refined carbohydrates. You might still want to eat cereal for its taste, or nostalgia, or because a cartoon character told you to. But you should probably take the health claims for breakfast cereal with a healthy dose of salt.

This story has been adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.