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A bitter brotherly feud, and how Kellogg's Corn Flakes reimagined American breakfast

Sep 7, 2017

A chirpy, cheery jingle from the 1960s was part of a massive advertising effort that helped Kellogg’s Corn Flakes become amazingly popular.  

Kellogg’s best to you” meant breakfast to countless families across America. Open that box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, or Rice Krispies, pour on the milk — and you've got breakfast.

 
But at the center of the story of how Kellogg’s got started, and eventually became a hugely successful international company, there’s a bitter family feud between the two Kellogg brothers, whose business began with support from the Seventh-Day Adventist church, and had a focus on developing a healthy and holy lifestyle, including sexual abstinence.
 
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his younger brother Will Keith Kellogg were both from Battle Creek, Michigan. In his book, The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, U of M medical historian Dr. Howard Markel tells that story.

Before the Kelloggs revolutionized breakfast, Markel says the American diet was terrible compared to today’s standards.

“Breakfast was often fried-up, cured meats, bacon and ham – so a great deal of fat and salt,” Markel said. “And it took quite a bit of time to make these meals. The healthiest meal might be a bowl of mush, but these whole grains took hours to boil and cook so they were soft and palatable.”

The two brothers had a rough relationship. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg often overshadowed his younger brother Will Keith Kellogg. John Harvey was the medical director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. The brothers  worked to develop the recipe for what would eventually become known as cornflakes. The younger Will Keith Kellogg was seen as “dim-witted” Markel says, though he displayed strong business acumen. 

Eventually, Will Keith Kellogg broke off from doing business with his brother, and started the company that became Kelloggs. He perfected the recipe he'd started with his brother, and Corn Flakes became a national sensation.

“Will added a little bit of salt, and a little bit of sugar, and that made corn flakes taste like corn flakes,” Markel said. “And that just became the hit of the century.”

Markel says Will Keith Kellogg surrounded himself with talented advertising professionals, and poured resources into advertising, which eventually helped him earn the rights to the Kellogg name after John Harvey attempted to start a cereal company of his own, bearing the same family name. Eventually, Markel says the dispute ended up in front of the Michigan Supreme Court.

“The judge said, ‘look at all these ads – millions and millions of dollars of ads,” Markel said. “Millions of Americans read these ads or hear about it on the radio. And when you hear the name Kellogg, you think of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.”

Listen to Stateside’s entire conversation with Howard Markel, University of Michigan medical historian and author of the book The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, above.

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