Feature: Serial on Cereal Pt. 1


The Sordid Beginnings of Breakfast Cereal

What do God, eugenics, mutilated genitals and yoghurt enemas have in common? Corn Flakes!

It seems that the humble bowl of cereal didn’t start out so humble at all. It was the fuel for a conglomerate empire that amassed millions of dollars at a time of great depression. It rang alarms bells for treachery and caused a heartbreaking family feud.

It all begins with the Kellogg’s brothers, John Harvey and William Keith. The brothers were born in Tyrone, Michigan to parents John Preston Kellogg and Ann Janette Stanley.

The family moved to Battle Creek, Michigan where their father established a broom factory. It was here that William Keith learnt a strong work ethic and smart business sense which would later help to forge the multimillion dollar Kellogg’s company.

John Harvey took an interest in health and science, attaining a degree in medicine from New York University in 1875. He had an active role as a speaker in the Seventh Day Adventist church and is said to have promoted a practical, common sense approach to religion although his advocacy of eugenics, the act of racial segregation to purify the gene pool, would do somewhat to besmirch this ideal. He believed that immigrants and ‘non-whites’ would damage the gene pool, however he later contradicted this by adopting a number of black children. Perhaps it was an act of redemption or some bizarre self-righteous acknowledgement of the kindness of white man.

He remained a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church for many years until he was denounced for his pantheistic views which were considered ‘infidel sentiments’ by other Adventist leaders.

John Harvey Kellogg gained notoriety for being the chief of medicine at the Battle Creek Sanitarium which was owned by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The sanitarium was run according to the church’s health principles. Adventists believe in a vegetarian diet, abstinence of tobacco and alcohol, and adhere to a stringent routine of exercise.


Cereal history
Battle Creek, Sanitarium (Wikimapia)

The Battle Creek Sanitarium ran cooking classes for homemakers. Visitors would engage in breathing exercises and mealtime marches to promote proper digestion. People would lay in artificial sunbaths to promote exuberance as John Harvey was a staunch proponent of photo therapy believing that it would cure sleep disorders and psychiatric ailments.

The sanitarium was a haven for people seeking a healthy lifestyle and soon became a vogue destination for celebrities such as former American president William Howard Taft, Nobel Prize winning playwright George Bernard Shaw, founder of the Ford motor company Henry Ford, and inventor Thomas Edison.

On the surface the Sanitarium may seem like a very noble establishment with its pursuits of health seemingly admirable. Somewhere along the lines however, the advocated health practices of Mr John Harvey Kellogg became somewhat disturbed. He believed in rigorous sexual abstinence and devoted a large proportion of his educational and medical careers discouraging sexual activity on the basis of believed dangers at that time, as in sexually transmitted diseases, as well as the beliefs of the church. He wrote a number of books that set out his beliefs, titled Plain Facts about Sexual Life and later Plain Facts for Old and Young.

One such warning the books held was that of the ‘excesses’ that couples could be guilty of within marriage, which he claimed were against nature and extremely unhealthy. It is rumoured that he worked on Plain Facts even during his honeymoon with wife Ella Ervilla Eaton – oh the imaginable passion and bountiful desire.

He was particularly against masturbation, drawing upon medical sources written by Dr Adam Clarke stating that: ‘neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism.’ Kellogg claimed masturbation related deaths, putting in his owns words ‘Such a victim literally dies by his own hand.’

He became so opposed to the act that he resorted to genital mutilation, on both sexes. He was known to circumcise teenage boys without anaesthetic, leaving open wounds so as to discourage the deed, hoping that mental aversion would lead to despondency. If circumcision wasn’t an option he would sew the foreskin shut and administer electric shock. Perhaps this phallic obsession was formed at a tender age while working at his father’s broom factory.

For females he would apply carbolic acid to the clitoris and bandage their hands, or in the case of full nymphomania ‘Cool sitz baths; the cool enema; a spare diet; the application of blisters and other irritants to the sensitive parts of the sexual organs, the removal of the clitoris…’


Cereal history

Patients were also prescribed a pint of yoghurt. Half the pint was to be taken orally while the other half pint was to be administered via enema. Kellogg believed that this would balance the cultures and good bacteria of the stomach and intestines at both ends thus alleviating the body of harmful toxins which could lead to potential illness. Kellogg was a fan of enemas in general and would administer them daily to all the patients and staff of the Battle Creek Sanitarium.

Somewhere amongst all this barbarity John Harvey and his brother William Keith discovered a way to press and toast whole grains making something similar to what we all now know as Corn Flakes. At the time of this discovery breakfasts for wealthier Americans consisted mainly of eggs and fatty meats like bacon and sausages. This caused a rise in cardio-vascular disease and high blood pressure which ironically may be the reason why the Sanitarium was becoming so popular in the first place.

Before long John Harvey and William Keith were in dispute over the manufacturing process. William Keith wanted to keep the toasting method a secret for marketing purposes and also wanted to add sugar to improve flavour while John Harvey was happy to show all his patients how it was made and wanted it to remain pure for health reasons. This caused a rift in their relationship and they soon went their separate ways scarcely communicating with each other for several decades.

William Keith went on to start his own breakfast cereal company called The Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company which continued to grow and eventually became The Kellogg Company that we know today.

John Harvey formed the Battle Creek Food Company to develop and market soy products. It didn’t quite reach the success of the Kellogg Company.

To add more pressure to the widening Kellogg brother rift, a patient of John Harvey’s, one Charles William Post would go on to create a rival brand of corn flakes under the banner of The Post Cereals company.  John Harvey eventually called treachery, claiming that Post stole the recipe for corn flakes from the Sanitarium office safe. This has never been proven, however as it is more likely that Post simply got the idea from one of the open tours that John Harvey ran at the Sanitarium.

The Kellogg’s brothers feuded for many years through drawn out court hearings over the cereal recipes. It wasn’t until late in life that John Harvey wrote a letter to William Keith expressing his want for reconciliation. The letter was entrusted to John Harvey’s secretary who refused to send it as she felt it demeaned her boss’s character. William Keith never received the letter until after the death of his older brother.