Nothing helps stave off a chilly morning quite like a warm bowl of Quaker oatmeal. The wholesome, hearty favorite seems timeless today, but oats for breakfast were once quite strange to American sensibilities. While the Quaker brand is synonymous with oatmeal, they've consistently branched out (read on for their surprising connection to Willy Wonka). Read on for 13 wholesome facts about the fascinating history of the Quaker Oats Company.
1. AMERICANS WERE RELUCTANT TO EAT "HORSE FOOD."
To many Americans in the 1850s, oats were considered livestock food—not fit for human consumption. Ferdinand Schumacher set out to change that perception in 1856 when he opened the German Mills American Oatmeal Factory in Akron, Ohio. Schumacher found success due to both the cheap nature of oat milling as well as strong support from Irish and German immigrants, who were already accustomed to eating oats. His success led to the memorable nickname "The Oatmeal King," and he quickly began attracting local competitors.
2. THE "QUAKER" BRAND WAS INTRODUCED IN 1877—BUT WITHOUT ANY QUAKER INFLUENCE.
Circa 1900. Getty
One major competitor to Schumacher was Henry Parsons Crowell, who owned the Quaker Oat Mill in nearby Ravenna, Ohio. Crowell was the first marketer to introduce a trademark for a cereal product and registered the "Quaker" brand name and symbol in 1877. Neither Crowell nor the brand had any connection to the Quaker religious sect, but the icon of the traditional figure was intended to represent "good quality and honest value."
3. THE COMPANY WAS BORN FROM A TUMULTUOUS MERGER.
After years of cutthroat competition, 1888 saw Schumacher and Crowell join forces with five other Midwestern grain moguls, including John Stuart and George Douglas, to form the American Cereal Company. Schumacher was the company’s first president and named Crowell vice president. Despite their alliance, the businessmen continued to struggle for control of the organization throughout the 1890s, with Crowell ultimately winning out. The renamed Quaker Oats Company was announced in 1901, with initial sales of $16 million.
4. HENRY CROWELL WAS A MAJOR PHILANTHROPIST.
While not a literal Quaker, Crowell was a prominent Christian philanthropist. Along with his wife, Susan Coleman Crowell, he established a major charitable trust which helped support over 100 evangelical organizations. In addition to his work with Quaker, he was also the Chairman of the Moody Bible Institute, a Christian university, for 40 years. Crowell ultimately donated over 70 percent of his lifetime earnings to various charities.
5. QUAKER OATS WAS THE FIRST TO GIVE OUT TRIAL-SIZE SAMPLES.
In the early 1890s, Quaker Oats pioneered several clever marketing techniques which would later become commonplace. In 1890, they introduced "trial size" samples of oatmeal, which were placed in every single mailbox in Portland, Oregon. The following year saw two additional innovations: they began including a small chinaware piece as a "free prize" in every box, and also became the first food company to include recipes on the packaging (the original recipe was for oatmeal bread).
6. THE MASCOT'S NAME IS LARRY.
Although often rumored to be William Penn, prominent Quaker and founder of the state of Pennsylvania, the company maintains that their genial mascot does not represent any particular historical person. Reminiscent of Crowell’s earlier statements about the brand association, Quaker now says their logo represents "honesty, integrity, purity, and strength." Within the company, however, he is affectionately known as Larry.
7. THEY DIVERSIFIED FAIRLY QUICKLY.
In 1922, Quaker released "Quaker Quick Oats," which reduced the cooking time from 20 minutes to just five. Along with Jell-O and other prepackaged options, "Quick Oats" were one of the very first convenience products on the American market. As Quaker continued to grow, they began offering a wider variety of products and incorporating other well-known name brands. One major acquisition was Aunt Jemima’s pancake flour in 1926. In 1942, they became a leader in the pet-food market when they purchased Ken-L Ration. The company saw a post-war boom, and by the late 1940s, Quaker boasted over 200 different products and sales of $277 million.
8. QUAKER JUMPED ON THE BREAKFAST CEREAL BOOM EARLY.
The trend towards convenience during the 1950s and 1960s sparked demand for quick-and-easy options, and Quaker was a leader in providing popular breakfast choices. The company introduced Life cereal in 1961—11 years before their memorable TV advertisement featuring a reticent young eater named Mikey, and the catchphrase "Mikey likes it!" Another kid-friendly cereal, Cap'n Crunch, was created in 1963 as a direct response to a survey which showed that children disliked soggy cereal. Yet another 1960s innovation was Quaker Instant Oats, which further reduced the cooking time from five minutes down to one.
9. QUAKER OWNED FISHER-PRICE FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS.
As cereal sales started to slow in the late 1960s, Quaker began to diversify outside of the food market. Many such acquisitions were short-lived, but in 1969 they took over the Fisher-Price Toy Company, which at one point comprised 25 percent of Quaker’s total profits. Fisher-Price mainstays during the '60s and '70s included toy xylophones, animal "pull toys," and the popular "Little People" playsets. Quaker spun off Fisher-Price in 1991.
10. QUAKER OATS FINANCED WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.
Surprisingly, the Quaker Oats Company was instrumental in the creation of the classic 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The early 1970s brought a major decline in revenue for the movie industry, and film studios began looking for unconventional ways to finance new projects. David Wolpert, a production executive, pitched a creative tie-in: Quaker would finance the production of the film, and also obtain exclusive rights to create Willy Wonka-themed products. The Gene Wilder-helmed film wasn’t an immediate hit, but candy products that were featured in the film, including Everlasting Gobstoppers, proved profitable. (Runts and Laffy Taffy were also born of this collaboration.) Quaker sold the Willy Wonka candy line to Nestle in 1988.
11. QUAKER WAS A MAJOR BEVERAGE PLAYER TOO.
As Quaker continued to branch out, one of their savviest business moves was the 1983 acquisition of Stokely-Van Camp, the makers of the Gatorade line of sports drinks. By 1987, Gatorade was Quaker’s biggest seller, and the company attempted to corner more of the beverage market with the 1994 purchase of the Snapple Corporation. By 1995, Quaker was the nation’s third-largest producer of non-alcoholic beverages, with sales over $2 billion annually. Ultimately, the Snapple decision proved to be a mistake; the brand was sold at a loss in 1997. Four years later, Quaker was bought out by PepsiCo, although the Quaker line remains popular to this day.
12. OATMEAL FOR A HEALTHY HEART—IT’S OFFICIAL!
As consumers became increasingly health-conscious throughout the 1990s, Quaker used that trend to notch another first: Following a petition from Quaker, the FDA issued the first official food-specific health claim for oatmeal in 1997, which read "Soluble fiber from oatmeal as part of a low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet, may reduce the risk of heart disease." So go ahead and have that second bowl.
13. LARRY GOT A MAKEOVER.
In 2012, Larry, the smiling Quaker mascot, received a minor makeover as part of a broader marketing initiative among the PepsiCo corporation. Intending to subtly reinforce the perception of oatmeal as a healthy choice, the cheerful Quaker was given a trimmer haircut, and was slightly slimmed down—he "lost about five pounds," according to the art team who led the redesign.