Memories by the bowlful
"The Great American Cereal Book: How Breakfast Got Its Crunch," by Marty Gitlin and Topher Ellis (Abrams Image, 368 pages, $19.95 hardcover)
Given ready-to-eat cereal's reputation (deserved or not) as an overly sugary way to start the day, it may surprise most to learn the popular breakfast dish began as a "health food."
As Marty Gitlin and Topher Ellis explain in "The Great American Cereal Book," that was back in the 1860s, when New York sanitarium (health resort) owner James Caleb Jackson mixed graham flour with water and baked it into thin bricks. When done, the bricks were crumbled into bits and baked again. The resulting kibble, requiring overnight soaking in milk to render it edible, was sold as Granula and touted as a wholesome, healthy breakfast food.
A few decades later, John Harvey Kellogg - whose Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Mich., attracted celebrities like Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart - developed a flaked cereal called Granose. ("A new cereal food…thoroughly sterilized…cures constipation, biliousness, sick-headache and indigestion," the ads promised.) By 1902, "healthy" breakfast foods were big business. Forty cereal manufacturers set up shop in Battle Creek alone.
Breakfast foods have gone through lots of changes since then. But more than a century later, cereal remains among the most popular supermarket purchases and arguably occupies a special place in America's collective memory.
Breakfasts of days past
"Many feel some sort of emotional attachment to particular cereals or have fond childhood memories of spooning them up while reading the back of a box at the kitchen table," writes Gitlin, a longtime journalist who recalls trying nearly every cereal on supermarket shelves as a kid in the 1960s. (Ellis is a cereal marketing consultant and editor of the Boxtop, a cereal newsletter.)
Showcasing 400 products marketed during the past 150 years, this engaging celebration of cereal is almost sure to bring back memories of long-ago breakfasts. Wittily designed to resemble a cereal box, the book is illustrated with hundreds of colorful images, including full-page pictures of cereal packages, vintage ads, and boxtop premiums.
Kids who grew up during the Depression and consumed enough Toasties, for example, could send away for a Melvin Purvis Junior G-Man kit. (Purvis was the FBI agent who spearheaded efforts to capture notorious outlaw John Dillinger.) In the 1950s, soldier figurines were popular premiums. By the late 1960s some cereals, including Sugar Crisp, offered thin, playable records by pop acts such as Bobby Sherman right on the box.
Sweeter, then more 'natural'
How did a product launched as a health food turn into something often considered a too-sugary nutritionist's nightmare? According to Gitlin and Ellis, by the late 1940s the cereal market was flat, and manufacturers were looking for fresh ways to attract customers. Introducing pre-sweetened cereal, a novelty at the time, proved to be one of them. Meanwhile, the growing popularity of TV allowed marketers to reach vast numbers of young consumers. As TV stars and cartoon characters sang the praises of sugar-frosted, marshmallow-studded cereals, sales soared.
"Nutritionists couldn't stem the tide," the authors write.
By the early 1970s, though, the tide was turning again. The American public was becoming more health-conscious, and many cereal manufacturers were quick to respond. When sales campaigns for cereals touting low salt and sugar content proved successful, more and more such cereals were introduced.
Manufacturers, the authors note, "were discovering that nutritional cereals could be profitable - and so, of course, could cereals with little nutritional value. From the middle of the 1970s and on through today, the cereal industry has developed into a smorgasbord including everything from healthy bran cereal to sugary marshmallow cereals."
Toys, movies, cereals!
In recent decades, the biggest breakfast cereal marketing trend has involved pop culture tie-ins. Since the 1980s, many new cereal varieties have been named after films, TV shows, video games, and toys, enabling them to piggyback on the popularity of the original item. Most tie-in cereals have limited runs, though some sell well for several years.
Ghostbusters cereal, for example, was launched in 1986 in the wake of the hugely successful film by the same name. Featuring marshmallow "ghosts," it remained on shelves until 1989. Breakfast With Barbie cereal, with fruit-flavored multigrain shapes, was introduced in 1989 and was available until 1991. High School Musical, a vanilla-flavored corn concoction billed as being "packed with star power," was on shelves from 2007 until 2009, a year after the last "High School Musical" movie hit the market.
One less successful tie-in involved The Simpsons, whose TV popularity apparently did not carry over to the cereal market. Bart Simpson Peanut Butter Chocolate Crunch Cereal and Homer's Cinnamon Donut Cereal both were introduced in 2002, according to the authors. By the end of that same year, both Homer and Bart were cereal history.