The Birth of Frosted Flakes

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Absolutely Absorbing Bathroom Reader.

Here's a breakfast drama by Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford, from their book Cerealizing America.


Cereal flakes were invented by Dr. John Kellogg and his brother Will Kellogg (W.K.) in 1894, at their Battle Creek, Michigan, sanitarium. They were experimenting with wheat, trying to make "a digestible substitute for bread," when they accidentally left a batch soaking in water overnight. The next day, they discovered it could be formed and baked into little flakes.

After four more years of trial and effort, the Kelloggs successfully applied the process to corn. However, they only sold cornflake by mail as a health food, to patients and former patients; Dr. Kellogg wasn't interested in distributing it to the general public.


On the other hand, C.W. Post, one of Kellogg's former patients, had no qualms about selling it to the public. In 1896, using a stolen Kellogg recipe for faux coffee that he called Postum, he founded the fastest-growing business in America. In 1898 he created Grape Nuts, and in 1902 he brought cornflakes to market as Elijah's Manna.

Post was an advertising genius, but he couldn't keep up with the Kellogg Company. When W.K. finally ducked his brother and expanded the cereal business in 1903, he turned out to be every bit as good a promoter as Post was. He quickly grabbed the lion's share of the cornflake market, and never relinquished it. For 50 years, cornflakes were the bestselling dry cereal. Kellogg's Corn Flakes were #1; the Post version of cornflakes, Post Toasties, were #2.

Both companies were located in Battle Creek, and over the years they fought tooth and nail for industry supremacy. People who worked for Post and Kellogg regarded each other as the enemy.


In 1948 executives at Post (by then part of General Foods) noticed how well sugar-coated Ranger Joe Popped Wheat Honnies were selling in the Northeast. They envisioned it as the perfecte way to overtake Kellogg, and secretly began developing their own sugar-coated wheat puffs.

This decision raised a serious moral dilemma for Post.

It was deeply ingrained in the corporate culture of all major cereal makers that their products were healthy food …and sugar isn't especially good for children. Traditionalists (and nutritionists) feared that manufacturing sugar-coated cereal would violate the guiding principles of the company. But proponents of pre-sweetened  cereal suggested that adding a controlled amount of sugar in the plant was preferable to kids adding an unlimited amount at the breakfast table. They also insisted that the company was merely "trading off sugar carbohydrates for grain carbohydrates -and sugar and starch are metabolized in exactly the same way." So the nutritional value of the product, they explained, wasn't changed.

In the end, though, the most convincing "argument" came from the marketing department. They were sure that Post would make big bucks from sugar-coated cereal. And that was that.



Post came up with a product they figured could double as a breakfast food and a snack.They called it Happy Jax ..but the Cracker Jack Company complained, so they renamed it Sugar Crisp. They packaged it in cellophane bags (like Ranger Joe) and in 1948, rolled it out from coast to coast.

To Post's great delight, Kellogg was blindsided by the new creation. "I remember going to a small department store in 1949 and finding Sugar Crisp there," recalls a Kellogg salesman. "Believe you me, it made the Kellogg people shudder."

Fortunately for Kellogg, however, Sugar Crisp was hit by the same problem that struck Ranger Joe the first time around. "The stuff used to turn into bricks," laughs an old-time Post employee. "It solidified so you couldn't pound it apart. You'd rip the bag off and gnaw on a piece."

In 1951, Post improved the packaging and Sugar Crisp became a spectacular success. The moral argument conveniently forgotten, Post looked around for other products to cover with sugar. Six months later, they introduced "candy-kissed" Rice Krinkles, a caramel-coated rice cereal designed to steal market share from Kellogg's Rice Krispies. Once again, the product caught Kellogg flat-footed.


Finally, Post moved on to the most important product -cornflakes. In 1951 they launched Corn-Fetti, a sugar-coated flake designed to stay crispy and sweet in milk.

To support the product, Post advertised on TV with Captain Jolly, the first cartoon pirate of crunch. He sailed the video seas to sell Corn-Fetti with the jolly bluster, "Ho-Ho-Ho! No one can stay away from Corn-Fetti. It never gets sticky, even in the box."

It was a crippling blow to Kellogg. "We were a little bit shook up with Corn-Fetti," a former Kellogg salesman says. "This wholesaler told me, 'Boy, Post's got Corn-Fetti, they're really going to take you guys to the cleaners now!'"

And maybe Post could have …but they stumbled. It wasn't long before Kellogg realized that Corn-Fetti wasn't selling. "It was a disaster," says an industry expert. "The flakes were hardened with this beautiful, clear-candy coating. But it was so insoluble, it would cut your mouth all up like glass."

Instead of fixing the Corn-Fetti formula and reintroducing it immediately, General Foods began an exhaustive, time-consuming product testing process. "We were all so frustrated with the situation," recalls Post's art director at the time. "While we had our sales force standing in line to reintroduce Corn-Fetti, they continued to test and test market …until finally the competition stole the idea.

The competition was, of course, Sugar-Frosted Flakes.


The moral dilemma posed by sugar-coated cereal was nothing compared to the debate it engendered at Kellogg. The argument about "pre sweets" and their impact on children's health had already been going on for years in Kellogg's Food Research Department.

It had a historic precedent. At the turn of the century, Dr. John Kellogg, who believed sugar was unhealthy, had argued vehemently against using it as an ingredient in cornflakes. But in 1902, while he was in Europe, his brother W.K., unilaterally decided to add cane sugar to the formula. Dr. Kellogg was furious, but his medical concerns were less persuasive to W.K. than the opinions of consumers, who were buying more cornflakes than ever.


By the mid-1950s, the battling Kellogg brothers both passed away, but a large percentage of Kellogg stock was owned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a charitable organization established to promote children's health and education. And they were dealing with the sugar controversy again. Was it right, they asked, for a children's health organization to promote presweetened cereals?

Well, maybe not …but never mind. It was still consumer's opinions that really  mattered. Sugar-coated cereal was making money for other companies, so Kellogg was going to produce them, too.

The company rushed to get out a product that would be competitive with Sugar Crisp. For their first effort, they picked Corn Pops, a puffed corn grit that had been developed back in the 1930s, and launched it as Sugar Corn Pops in 1950. It was so successful that Kellogg had to run its Omaha, Nebraska, plant 24 hours a day just to meet demand.


Once Corn-Fetti looked vulnerable, Kellogg went after the sugar-coated cornflakes market, as one industry observer put it, "like it was their salvation." Initially there was some concern that tampering with the almighty cornflake might be a mistake. Cornflakes, after all, were the cornerstone of the company. But Kellogg really had no choice; if they didn't do it, Post would have the market to itself.

Kellogg's marketing people learned from Post's blunders. Instead of using a crystalline coating, Kellogg developed a sugar coating process that resulted (they said) in "the bright appearance of frost." And instead of a confusing name like Corn-Fetti, Kellogg came up with  the simple yet elegant "Sugar Frosted Flakes."


(Image credit: Flickr user Wishbook)

In 1949, Post's advertising agency had produced an animated TV commercial for Sugar Crisp featuring three identical bears named Candy, Dandy, and Handy. The furry trio scampered through commercial misadventures while an announcer declared: "For breakfast it's Dandy. For snack it's so Handy. Or eat it like Candy."

The cartoon animals were crude, but effective, and Kellogg was focused on imitating them. "Sugar Crisp had the sugar bears," explained a representative of their ad agency. So Kellogg said, "We want animals, too."

But what animals?

The ad agency's task: come up with creatures that would help overcome the parental bias against sugar-coated cereal but still attract kids. The admen turned to motivational research for answers. Then they got lucky: Behaviorist Konrad Lorenz happened to have just published his Studies in Animal and Human Behavior. In his book, Lorenz discussed the fact that the physical features of children triggered "innate mechanisms" for affection in adults. Big eyes, broad foreheads, and small chins made parents sigh. "Perhaps," thought the ad executives, "they also make parents buy." They decided to put Lorenz's theories to the test.


The team of admen brainstormed until they'd narrowed the zoological field to four: a kangaroo, an elephant, a gnu, and a tiger. "The tiger was put in at that time because it was a symbol of energy," recalls an art director. Then they approached children's artists to create a "look" for each animal.

Once they had an artist's rendering, they brought in a TV expert to start writing commercials. He named them all: Tony the Tiger, Katy the Kangaroo, Newt the Gnu, and Elmo the Elephant. Two more admen wrote a jingle for each critter. Tony's four-line poem ended with one of the most memorable lines in ad history- "They're Grr-r-eat!"

Elmo the Elephant and Newt the Gnu quickly disappeared, but Tony and Katy showed up on store shelves in 1952. Some folks in the ad industry couldn't see Tony's potential. "I am very fond of dry breakfast cereals," wrote ad critic James D Woolf in Advertising Age, "but this tiger concept completely fails to give me a hankering."

Consumers knew better. Tony's packages flew off the shelves while Kay's just sat there. Kellogg decided to retire the kangaroo and focus their energies exclusively on the tiger.


With a potential hit on their hands, Kellogg sent an agent to Los Angeles to find someone to animate their tiger for commercials. They picked Howard Swift, a Disney refugee who'd worked as the principle animator for Dumbo. He transformed the sketches of Tony into the character who has roamed the American cereal aisles and airwaves for the past fifty years.

For Tony's voice, they cast a basso profundo named Thurl Ravenscroft. He rehearsed Tony's signature line until it was perfect. Today, all we have to do is print "They're Grr-r-eat!" and (admit it) you can hear his voice in your head.

(YouTube link)


Sugar Frosted Flakes immediately trounced the inedible Corn-Fetti and went on to become America's most popular candy-coated cereal. Tony inspired other cereal-makers to create their own spokes-creatures, which then -as you know- took over kids' television.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Absolutely Absorbing Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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Thurl Ravenscroft also sang the song ("You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch...) in the original animated "the Grinch That Stole Christmas". Many times I have heard people insist that it was sung by Boris Karloff, but he only did the spoken narration - - Ravenscroft did the singing.
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