Thinking Outside the Cereal Box

This may be hard to believe, but long, long ago—in the days before creatures like Costcosaurus maximus and Walmartius rex had evolved to dominate the shopping landscape—there were no words on the back of cereal boxes.

Quaker Oats became America's first trademarked breakfast cereal in 1877. Photo courtesy Flickr user Rob Shenk

Okay, I knew that, and you probably did too. But I'd never given it much thought until I read food historian Andrew F. Smith's latest book: "Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine."

One of the chapters is devoted to Quaker Oats, which in 1877 became the first trademarked breakfast cereal in the United States. People already ate oatmeal, sure, but they bought their oats in bulk from a local grocer or street peddler—no brand names or cartoon mascots involved. No morning ritual of reading the cereal box at the breakfast table.

Then a guy named Henry Crowell came along and changed everything. He took over a struggling oat mill business in Ravenna, Ohio, getting the rights to the Quaker trademark as part of the deal (after it had been briefly and unsuccessfully used to market whiskey). Canned foods were a hot new trend back then, and Crowell noticed the public's growing appetite for colorful, conveniently sized packaging, so he began selling his oatmeal in distinctive cardboard cartons adorned with the brand's trademark image.

Soon the cartons also featured recipes, since, as Smith notes, "most Americans had no idea what to do with oatmeal other than boil and eat it for breakfast." The first, added to Quaker Oats packages in 1908, was extremely simple: Oat Cakes: 1/2 pound butter, 3 cups Quaker Oats, 2 eggs. (No instructions on how to combine or cook). These days, the company's website features more detailed recipes like "Spicy Oat Crusted Chicken with Sunshine Salsa."

By the turn of the 20th century, Quaker had some serious competition from ready-to-eat breakfast cereals (like Kellogg's Corn Flakes, which Smith covers in another chapter of his book), so it turned toward products that required less preparation, like "quick oats" (introduced in 1922), Life cereal (1961) and instant oatmeal (1966). Now, the brand's reach extends to granola bars, pancakes mix and even tortilla chips—which, as far as I can tell, don't contain any oats.

Crowell was apparently a marketing genius, and many of his tactics influenced the way food products are sold even to this day—placing coupons and "free gifts" on or within a cereal box; using salespeople dressed as Quakers to hand out free samples to the public; and touting the food's health benefits.

So, the next time I'm standing in the cereal aisle, feeling completely overwhelmed by the sea of slogans, logos, and sweepstakes opportunities, I'll shake my fist at that serenely smiling Quaker dude.

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