The Surprising Origins of Kellogg’s Cereals

Kellogg’s Cereal History and Invention

The origins of Kellogg’s® cereals is a fascinating journey that began in 1906 and has since become synonymous with breakfast in many households around the world. The invention of Kellogg’s cereals was driven by a combination of health concerns, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit.

Kellogg’s was founded in the year 1906 by Will Keith Kellogg, working with his brother Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. The Kellogg’s brothers were staunch followers of Reverend Sylvester Graham, inventor of Graham cookies.  It is not surprising therefore that they drew inspiration from the diet of Seventh-day Adventists to create their breakfast, a religion they themselves practiced.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his Views on Masturbation

In the late 19th century, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, became deeply concerned about the dietary habits of the time, which often consisted of heavy, meat-based breakfasts.

Dr. John Harvey Kellog, much like his mentor Graham, preached sexual abstinence. Among the sexual practices he condemned (and detested) the most, was masturbation. He firmly believed that masturbation caused physical, psychological, and moral harm. Dr. Kellogg attributed nervous breakdowns and a permanent weakening of a person’s essential faculties to sexual climax and orgasm.

He claimed that this solitary sexual practice could lead to a staggering THIRTY-NINE! diseases and various bodily issues. Among the alleged consequences were urinary problems, uterine cancer, prostate cancer, acne, impotence, epilepsy, vision loss, anemia, heart complications, and a host of other complications.

To combat masturbation, Dr. Kellogg proposed dangerous and unconventional procedures. He advocated for circumcision at any age, always performed without anesthesia. He also recommended placing a metal thread around the foreskin of potential masturbators to irritate the area and suppress their desires. In some cases, he even suggested directly applying acid (phenol) to the clitoris of women to desensitize them and induce pain.

It’s clear that Dr. Kellogg was unwavering in his convictions and consistent in his beliefs. It is believed that he remained celibate throughout his life. He married Ella Ervilla Eaton, with whom he lived (in separate rooms) for decades. However, their marriage was never consummated.

During their honeymoon, the couple dedicated themselves to writing a book about sexual life, which they continuously updated and expanded over the years, eventually reaching a staggering 800 pages. The book, titled “Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life,” naturally advocated against any form of sexual activity.

He believed that a light, plant-based breakfast could improve digestion and overall health, as well a medical method to combat and eradicate masturbation. And so he began experimenting with various grains and foods.

The Accidental Invention of Cornflakes

In 1894, a serendipitous accident occurred that would change breakfast forever. Dr. Kellogg and his brother, Will Keith Kellogg, were working with wheat to create a vegetarian alternative to meat. They accidentally left a batch of boiled wheat out overnight. When they rolled the wheat the next morning, it formed flakes. They baked these flakes, creating the first version of corn flakes.

This cereal was made from wheat, corn, oats, and barley that were ground into a flour and then baked.  Recognizing the potential of this new cereal, the brothers started the Sanitas Food Company in 1897 to produce their new cereal. They initially marketed it as a health food and sold it to patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. The cereal’s popularity grew, and they began selling it to the public.

John and Will later argued over the recipe for the cereals (Will wanted to add sugar to the flakes). So, in 1906, Will Keith Kellogg founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company to mass-produce and market corn flakes, triggering a decades-long feud with his brother. His entrepreneurial vision, along with innovations in advertising and packaging, propelled the cereal to popularity.

Will Keith Kellogg – Innovations and Branding

The older brother, John, was considered brilliant and left home to study medicine in New York. Meanwhile, his family suspected that the younger sibling, Will, had limited intelligence. Unfortunately, John Harvey often subjected Will to both verbal and physical abuse.

As adults, John Harvey went on to become a highly respected physician, overseeing a large medical complex in Battle Creek, Michigan. During this time, Americans were obsessed with the idea of healthy digestion, and John Harvey played a prominent role in promoting this obsession. The Sanitarium he managed even attracted notable figures like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Amelia Earhart, who sought treatments to improve their digestion.

When John Harvey hired 20-year-old Will to manage the commercial aspects of the Sanitarium, the humiliating treatment at his brother’s hands continued. Will was denied an office and referred to as John’s “lackey.” He was constantly trailing behind with a notebook to jot down ideas, even accompanying John on his bicycle rides around Battle Creek Sanitarium campus and joining him in the restroom to record his thoughts.

Though Will remained silent, he harbored resentment. However, one seemingly menial task assigned by John Harvey eventually led to Will’s remarkable success.

John Harvey, with his fascination with the digestive system, believed that subjecting grains to extremely high temperatures during baking would break down their complex sugars and starches, making them easier to digest. This led to Will spending hours bent over a hand-cranked roller, working with flattened dough to create tiny flakes. This painstaking process ultimately resulted in the creation of what is now a widely recognized cereal: wheat flakes. It was, as Markel noted, a true “Eureka moment.”

Will established an impromptu factory at the Sanitarium, selling flakes in ten-ounce packages for 15 cents each. In their first year, they sold over 51 tons of cereal, introducing the concept of instant breakfast from a box.

John Harvey showed little interest in the commercial potential of their product, so Will began experimenting with a new cereal, eventually creating corn flakes.

In 1905, after 25 years working for his brother, Will offered to buy his cereal business. He founded the Battle Creek Toasted Cornflake Company, now Kellogg’s. Will invested heavily in advertising, irking John, who detested the use of the Kellogg name.

John started a rival company, leading to a decade-long legal battle. Will ultimately triumphed, gaining control of the money his brother had earned from cereal over a decade.

The brothers never reconciled their relationship. When they met, Will insisted on having a third person in the room. Near the end of his life, John wrote Will an emotional letter, a mea culpa from a man clearly filled with regret.

Unfortunately, Will never received the letter because John Harvey’s secretary chose not to send it, fearing it would portray John Harvey as weak. It wasn’t until 1948, years after John Harvey’s passing, that Will finally received the letter. By then, Will had lost his sight due to glaucoma. The letter had to be read aloud to him, evoking tears and silent stoicism. It undoubtedly struck a deep chord within him.


Over the years, Kellogg’s introduced various cereal products, such as All-Bran in 1915, Rice Krispies in 1928, and Frosted Flakes in 1952. These new cereals catered to different tastes and preferences, expanding the company’s product line.

Kellogg’s cereal gained international recognition and became a staple breakfast choice in many countries. The company’s commitment to quality, marketing, and innovation played a significant role in its global success. They also responded to changing dietary preferences and nutritional concerns by developing cereals with added vitamins and minerals, as well as introducing healthier options like Special K and bran cereals.

Today, Kellogg’s stands as one of the world’s largest cereal manufacturers, with a wide range of breakfast and snack products.

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