The Most Important Meal of the Day: A Cereal History
Which came first: the Cap’n or the Crunch? The Cap’n did; the Crunch came later, as a way to capitalize, cerealistically, on the Cap’n's character, conceived in advance. And not just conceived–even the first commercials had been shot and approved before Quaker agreed to make the actual cereal. Before 1963 was over, there were already two cereals—Seadog and Magnolia “Maggy” Bulkhead—featuring characters from the Cap’n's milieu, like characters spun off from a bad sitcom. There would be no less than nine other spin-offs from Cap’n Crunch in the years following, the most recent coming in 2000.
I knew none of this before reading The Great American Cereal Book: How Breakfast Got Its Crunch, by Marty Gitlin and Topher Ellis. There’s so much great lore in these pages, for those who collect odd fragments of Americana–so much colorful ephemera, like prizes found at the bottom of the box.
So it is that you learn that Kaboom and Fruit Bruit are in fact real cereals, not just fanciful creations of Quentin Tarantino’s; that Cheerios settled on its name because Quaker wouldn’t let them call themselves Cheerioats, one of the biggest inadvertent favors ever bestowed in the history of trademark haggling; that Zo wheat and barley flakes used to brag in advertisements about accompanying your favorite explorer, Richard Byrd, on a quest to the South Pole (and that Kellogg’s did, too); that marbits, those tiny marshmallows, are not just tiny marshmallows but the product of an elegant formula that ensures moisture will not be released into the cereal, causing clumping; that there were no less than 92 Corn Flakes clones in the early 20th century; that there was actually a cereal, short-lived at the tail end of your childhood, called Bigg Mixx, which purported to be “every cereal left on the cutting-room floor”; that something called Vanilla Sweeties, in the 1920s, was probably the first cereal designed for kids.
All these fugitive facts and others are rounded up and gathered here, where they can coexist with the more sweeping, broad outlines of breakfast-cereal history: its origin as essentially a tasteless laxative, as invented by Dr. James Caleb Jackson and John Harvey Kellogg in the 1860s; its creative and fiscal dead-in-the-water stagnation in the early part of the new century; the pre-boomer advances, such as the puff-gun and advertising savvy, that helped ensure success for the industry once all those postwar babies arrived; the rise of pre-sweetened cereals that immediately followed; then the granola movement during the health-crazed seventies; and finally, by the eighties, the business model of planned obsolescence, wherein cereals were created off of TV and movie characters known to be temporary, for quick but thorough commercial success.
This history is found interpolated throughout an exhaustive run-down of vital statistics on every single cereal the authors could find, in addition to many beautifully rare and obscure images. This project, the authors insist, is a labor of love, but there’s no way it would have been achieved without a love of labor. They’ve spent fifteen years digging through “library collections, old magazines, advertisements, and cereal box collections; made weekly trips to the grocery aisle, and innumerable visits to websites; and had countless conversations with cereal manufacturers, collectors, advertising executives, and cereal account personnel, character and box design artists, and vocal talent.”
You gotta love that and vocal talent that caps it all off. This truly is a feat of pop-cultural archaeology that roots through every crevice of its designated terrain. Ultimately, it’s as hard to dislike as cereal itself is: sugary when you want it to be, nutritious when you need it to be, already prepared and ready for consumption.
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