If you've never been aroused by the sight of a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, then you're probably completely normal and have nothing to worry about. At least according to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, that is.
Few, if any, of today’s most popular cereals have a history as richly strange and accidental as Corn Flakes. But what could be so interesting about pieces of oven-baked milled corn? That sounds about as riveting as watching a PBS documentary on the history of crocheting, or reading the autobiography of Millard Fillmore.
The history of Corn Flakes begins in the late nineteenth century with the Seventh Day Adventists, a Bible-based Christian denomination that believed firmly in adhering to a vegetarian diet. As a result, the Adventists began experimenting with varieties of grains, specifically oat, wheat, corn, rice and barley, as a way of replacing the meat and dairy products that they previously consumed.
Enter Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg was the superintendent of Battle Creek Sanitarium, and a staunch Adventist, who imposed a strict vegetarian diet upon his patients, disallowing the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine as well. But, unlike the Adventists, and most modern vegetarians, he didn’t enforce the diet for purely health or moral reasons. Kellogg was a firm believer in sexual abstinence and subscribed to the idea that sweet or spicy foods increased passion. He was a particularly zealous opponent of masturbation, citing many medical sources in his campaigns against it. "Neither plague, nor war, nor small-pox," he said, referencing the remarks of Dr. Adam Clarke, "...have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism." He would later poignantly remind his listeners of the harsh reality of self pleasure-related deaths. "Such a victim," he passionately avowed, "dies literally by his own hand."
This is where Corn Flakes come in. Amongst the various measures that Kellogg resorted to in order to curb passions he relied most heavily upon the vegetarian diet, and feeding his patients a new flaked cereal he and his brother, Will Keith Kellogg, had accidentally created after toasting some stale cooked wheat. Kellogg believed that this product, that they called “Corn Flakes” acted as an anaphrodisiac, greatly decreasing the sex drives of those who consumed it.
After obtaining a patent for “flaked cereals and process of preparing the same” in 1895, the brothers formed the Sanitas Food Company to produce their whole grain cereals. But they quickly began disagreeing over the recipe. Will wanted to add sugar to the flakes in order to make them more palatable to a larger audience, while John held firm in his anti-sweet beliefs. The result was Will’s formation of the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1906, which went on to become the multi-billion dollar Kellogg Company we know today. (An interesting note: Charles William Post, who would later found the Postum Cereal Company, was a patient of Kellogg’s at Battle Creek, developing his own products based on the cereal he consumed while at the clinic. Kellogg would later claim that Post stole the recipe for Corn Flakes from the safe in his office.)
John Harvey Kellogg spent the rest of his life practicing medicine, treating such notable figures as President William Howard Taft, aviator Amelia Earhart, Nobel prize-winning playwright George Bernard Shaw, founder of Ford Motor Company Henry Ford, and inventor Thomas Edison. Following Freud’s studies in human sexuality, and other studies in human sexual psychology in the first half of the twentieth century, it appears that Kellogg dropped his obsession with the evils of sex, focusing mainly on establishing healthy eating habits with his patients. He died in 1943 at the age of 91.
By the way, in case your curiosity has been piqued by Corn Flakes' unusual history, here’s a run down on several other popular cereals. Cheerios were created in 1945 by General Mills, and only experienced controversy in the form of a name change, from CheeriOats to Cheerios, after Quaker Oats sued over trade name infringement. Wheaties also came about by accident, and experienced a name change (from Washburn’s Gold Metal Wheat Flakes to Wheaties). Rice Krispies was developed by Clayton Rindlisbacher for Kellogg in 1927 and is also one of the most interesting considering its texture, but otherwise has perhaps blandest and most sleep-inducing history of them all.