While “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes” might seem like a straightforward breakfast choice for many Americans, its origins are quite controversial. John Harvey Kellogg, the cereal’s co-inventor alongside his brother, was a major advocate for cleanliness during the 20th century in the US.
While he fervently promoted nutrition and comprehensive health, he simultaneously pursued eugenics and initiated a brutal campaign against masturbation, leading to the horrific mutilation of children’s genitals.
So, how did this contentious figure rise to dominate American breakfast tables? Born amid America’s burgeoning focus on sanitation on February 26, 1852, in Tyrone, Michigan, John Harvey Kellogg’s entry to the world coincided with the patenting of the country’s first flushable toilet and came just eight years prior to Listerine’s introduction as an antiseptic.
Concurrently, the US was witnessing the ascent of temperance societies like the Seventh-Day Adventists, advocating primarily against alcohol and intimate relations. This potent blend of fervent sanitation and self-restraint heavily shaped Kellogg’s health and wellness beliefs.
Raised among 11 siblings in a deeply religious Seventh-Day Adventist household, his most tumultuous relationship was with his younger sibling, William Keith Kellogg. John Harvey notably dismissed him as being of lesser intellect.
By 1856, the Kellogg family relocated to Battle Creek, Michigan, a hotspot for Seventh-Day Adventists. Firm in their belief of the imminent second coming of Christ and the world’s end, the Kellogg siblings weren’t conventionally schooled.
Nonetheless, John Harvey became a self-taught scholar. After graduating with a medical degree in 1875, he had already developed a health model influenced by the US sanitation wave and his spiritual beliefs, termed “biologic living.”
Kellogg viewed the human form as “the living temple,” and his health strategies were a blend of scientific nutrition and spiritual dogma. He endorsed vegetarianism, temperance, and celibacy, deeming deviations as “self-pollution.”
Essentially, Kellogg sought purity, both physically and spiritually, and devised unique methods to attain it. By 1877, he assumed control of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a wellness hub for Seventh-Day Adventists, revamping it according to his life principles.
In an era where people lived an average of 41 years and urban roads were littered with human waste, the Sanitarium shone as a health oasis. It quickly gained popularity, escalating its annual patient count from 300 to nearly 1,200 within a decade.
Kellogg was also eager to revolutionize the American breakfast landscape. Typical 1880s breakfasts were predominantly meat-based: preserved, cold, or fried. Plant-based alternatives, like grains, demanded time, rendering breakfast both calorically dense and cumbersome.
Aligning with his cleanliness ethos, John Harvey Kellogg advised patients to consume sanitary foods like nuts, grains, and yogurt. For years, he, alongside his brother William, endeavored to craft an easy, grain-centric breakfast.
Their initial creation comprised baked graham biscuits crumbled into small pieces, named “Granola.” Dissatisfied, they later opted for a wheat flake cereal, initially termed Granose. By 1902, they reformulated it using corn, renaming it corn flakes.
However, John Harvey’s interest waned, leading William, the commercial mastermind, to buy out his brother’s stake, founding the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1906. William’s advertising brilliance shone when he urged buyers to “wink at your grocer and see what you get,” yielding a cornflake sample.
Simultaneously, John Harvey sold Granose via his “Kellogg’s” brand, leading to a legal dispute with William over the family name’s usage. After protracted litigation, during which cornflakes surged in popularity, William secured the rights to label his product as Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in 1920.
The story of cornflakes, for John Harvey Kellogg, was intricately linked to his mission to combat what he deemed as one of the gravest moral sins: masturbation. Believing in cornflakes as a “clean” dietary option, he anticipated that they would suppress one’s sexual urges.
A strong aversion to sexual activity defined much of his life — he never consummated his marriage. Kellogg launched a draconian campaign against masturbation, linking cravings for spicy foods, a hunched posture, and audacity to signs of a frequent masturbator, declaring such an individual to essentially perish by their own actions.
He advised parents to bind their children’s hands at night and to circumcise young boys without anesthesia. For girls, his severe method involved applying carbolic acid on the clitoris.
Kellogg, however, optimistically believed that his Corn Flakes might offer a gentler way to control sexual impulses in children. Moreover, his most extensive endeavor was the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a health retreat he supervised until his passing in 1943.
At this facility, the populace was introduced to the benefits of regular exercise, hygiene practices, and even occasional douching. He introduced a mechanical horse for indoor workouts.
Renowned as one of the nation’s premier health destinations, the Sanitarium drew affluent clients. Notable figures like J.C. Penny, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart, and President William Howard Taft all sought his treatment.
However, some of his health practices were decidedly odd. He advocated for frequent enemas, designing an enema machine that rapidly flushed the bowels. He himself undertook enemas during meals. Kellogg also suggested a daily yogurt intake — half orally and half as an enema, an early precursor to probiotic treatment.
He even patented a chair that agitated patients to the point of unintended bowel movements. In stark contrast to these forward-thinking health ideologies, Kellogg held some perilous beliefs.
A devoted eugenicist, he was against interracial marriages and proposed a registry of medical histories to ensure the ‘racial purity’ of future generations. He also organized the Race Betterment Conference, essentially a eugenics convention featuring contests for ‘superiorly bred’ white babies.
Yet, he defied segregation in his Sanitarium, training medical professionals regardless of race. He even cared for the renowned abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Up until his death in 1943, Kellogg operated the Sanitarium, later establishing another health center in Florida.
With inventions like an artificial sunbath device and a meat substitute named Nuttose, Kellogg was innovative. Alongside his wife, Ella Ervilla Eaton, he fostered 42 children, formally adopting seven, but they never had biological offspring.
Although the rift with his brother William remained, John Harvey did attempt reconciliation by writing an apologetic letter near his end. Unfortunately, due to his secretary’s intervention, William remained unaware of this gesture.
Remarkably, Kellogg lived to be 91, showcasing some efficacy in his health principles. His legacy is nuanced; while he elevated the importance of nutrition and hygiene in America, he simultaneously propagated harmful views on sexuality and race. In many ways, Corn Flakes embodies this dichotomy: a wholesome food with a contentious origin story.