Cereal is such a major part of growing up American: I remember the realization, when I was a kid, that for people of prior generations, the distinctive dry crinkle of a cereal's plastic bag against the box, followed by the unmistakable rattle of flakes on bowl (all immediately recognizable from the next room) would have been mysterious and unfamiliar. What's quicker shorthand than the mom who wouldn't let her kids have sugar cereal, or the fun house where you first tried Froot Loops? There's a fascinating article on MentalFloss about the history of America's favorite breakfast (invented by religious fanatics!) and why cereal is the most important thing in our nation's history.
Breakfast cereal was originally promoted by Christian fundamentalists as a wholesome alternative to the typical meat-and-whiskey diet of the average 19th Century sinner.
To rid America of these vices, religious zealots spearheaded the country’s first vegetarian movement. In 1863, one member of this group, Dr. James Jackson, invented Granula, America’s first ready-to-eat, grain-based breakfast product. Better known as cereal, Jackson’s rock-hard breakfast bricks offered consumers a sin-free meat alternative that aimed to clear both conscience and bowels.
Health advocate John Kellogg seized on the idea and turned it into the more palatable cornflake.
Cereal took its first turn towards the nakedly commercial when salesman Charles Post started knocking off the product, promoting them with an advertising blitz that quickly became the growing industry's SOP. Packaging got loud, claims got wild, and the mascot was born.
But the real winner was a cereal called Force. Its mascot, Sunny Jim, was a strutting, top-hatted gentleman who became so popular in newspapers and magazines that other cereal makers rushed to create their own mascots. For a cereal called Elijah’s Manna, Charles Post even tried putting a picture of the prophet on the label. Although the product was eventually pulled, one industry ground rule had been established: Every box needs a character. Before long, cereal makers had an insatiable appetite for finding the right mascot, regardless of the cost.
The next gimmick, marketing to kids, would have had cereal's high-minded creators rolling in their graves, as it became increasingly apparent that the trick to shilling to the young was upping the sugar content to cavity-inducing levels, which Mad Men pitched as "energy-boosting." In congress with the advent of kid's TV, this meant a stratospheric jump in sales, but the flagrant manipulation of children provoked a backlash, culminating in 1990's law that "banning TV characters from pitching directly to children in the middle of a show."
When you think about it, cereal still occupies a unique echelon in our social consciousness: even the junkiest choco-honey-loop carries about it an aura of health. But as natural foods have taken off, what's funny to see is the stark divide that's developed on supermarket shelves: virtuous brown health cereals, in their squat, dull boxes, quarantined from the gay circus of brightly-hued child-bait a few feet away. There's fun cereal, and then there's healthy cereal. And then there are the crummy health versions of fun cereals, which are obviously not nearly as delicious and are probably not fooling any 4-year-old with a brain and a TV. If the product's quintessentially American evolution, burdened equally with high-minded idealism and crass commercialism, is a neat analogy for the push-pull of the national ethos, you can make the same reach with the contemporary cereal aisle: the battle for the country's health and priorities. Because, as my bland health food store fake Honey Nut Cheerios can attest to, you seriously can't have it both ways.
How Cereal Transformed American Culture [MentalFloss]