1906: Kellogg’s Corn Flakes

It’s difficult to understand Upton Sinclair’s character without dipping into the 20th century history of cereal. And it’s impossible to tell the story of two brothers’ accidental invention of what would be marketed as corn flakes in 1906 without also talking about God and sex.

John Harvey and Will Keith Kellogg were two of a group of Seventh-day Adventists intent on finding a grain that would ease the way for church-sanctioned vegetarians in the late 19th century. When they left cooked wheat to sit one day while making the rounds at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, the two Kelloggs reportedly happened onto the flakes that would give rise to an international sensation.

The flakes were exactly what they’d been looking for, so perfectly bland that they might inhibit – and certainly wouldn’t encourage – the sexual passion that John Harvey, a medical doctor, had firmly set himself against. A would-be ascetic, Sinclair had struggled with what he viewed as ‘the addict within’ even before he landed at the sanitarium with his wife (who, in a brilliant stroke of irony, commenced an affair with a young Freud translator).

Biographer Anthony Arthur writes that Dr. Kellogg persuaded Upton Sinclair, a “self-described” physical wreck by age 29, to renounce meat: He concluded that “meat eating was killing me”; moreover, it “certainly seemed that the author of The Jungle should be a vegetarian, so I became one.” The New York Times, in an obituary, would later describe Sinclair, throughout his later life, as having “subsisted largely on a diet of brown rice, fresh fruit and celery.”

As for the brothers: It is, perhaps, no wonder that Dr. Kellogg preferred his cereal unsweetened and he split with businessman Will Keith over whether to add sugar. Thus, we remember the one for the health fads of the early 20th century and the other for an empire that would settle for transforming the world’s breakfast – and leave our sex lives alone.


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