Book Review: The Kelloggs by Howard Markel

Really loved this new book on the Kellogg brothers of breakfast cereal fame.

John Harvey Kellogg was a celebrity of healthy living of the late 19th and early 20th century. He authored over 30 books on medicine, diet, exercise, and wellness and created a nationally regarded health resort that was visited by presidents, business tycoons and literary luminaries. He pioneered notions taken for granted today, such as watching what you eat and exercising regularly, along with some oddball ideas on sexual abstinence and bowel cleansing.

Although John Harvey was a visionary in some respects, he was also a prima donna and a mediocre businessmen. He relied on his younger brother William Keith to maintain his books and make sure his resort and his outlandish stunts made money in the end. Not the most considerate person, John Harvey was frequently spotted riding his bicycle, dictating orders to William while he puffed along, struggling to take notes and keep up.

Seeking new alternatives to eating meat, the brothers famously stumbled upon flaked cereal. One telling is that, after a long week of failed attempts to produce an edible and enjoyable, wheat-based breakfast alternative, the brothers unthinkingly left a batch of dough out for the weekend. When the returned on Sunday, they discovered the slightly molded dough baked more evenly, resulting in crunchy flakes rather than unpleasant mush.

While John Harvey saw these wheat flakes (precursor to corn flakes) as something to be kept within his resort as an exclusive item for guests, William saw the potential for a mass market. John Harvey believed wheat flakes should be targeted to patients struggling with constipation, William Keith recognized that they should be adapted for the every man and (John Harvey forbid!) lightly sweetened to make them more enjoyable.

As the brothers debated the scope of their venture, competitors sprouted up in Battle Creek Michigan as it became a mini-Silicon Valley for breakfast cereal. Over 100 companies were formed, including Post, to cash in on this new money maker that saved housewives the drudgery of slow cooking oats. Countless titles appeared from Grape Nuts to the now extinct such as Mapl-Flakes, Flake-Ho, or Cero-Fructo.

Eventually breaking with his overbearing brother's business, William Keith applied his accumulated business experience to create his own breakfast cereal company. He commissioned new machines to boost production and capitalize on economies of scale. He created a national brand that Americans could trust, having an image of his signature printed on every box. He also introduced variety, showing that breakfast need not be monotonous just because it is routine.

Thus goes the story of the Kellogg company. The company that grew to becoming one of the biggest producers of ready-to-eat cereal, which became one of the largest categories of supermarket products.

(The book also contains extensive detail on the life and legacy of the Kellogg brothers, including John Harvey's influence for better and worse in wellness. But I find that less interesting to retell. 🙂 )

Reposted from a few years ago.


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