Theses Doctoral

Fresh from the Factory: Breakfast Cereal, Natural Food, and the Marketing of Reform, 1890–1920

Kideckel, Michael Solomon

This dissertation, Fresh from the Factory: Breakfast Cereal, Natural Food, and the Marketing of Reform, 1890–1920, challenges dominant depictions of industry and environmental activism as adversarial by investigating producers who sought to reform capitalism with a new consumer good. Cereal companies at the end of the nineteenth century became some of the first manufacturers to distribute ready-to-eat food to consumers nationwide. Breakfast cereal’s ubiquitous advertising spoke of the virtues of “natural food” made in some of the country’s most impressive factories. Aimed squarely at women, this advertising preached the virtues of machine-made “natural food” by associating it with nutritional science, religious imagery, and stereotypes about the closeness-to-nature of women and racialized people. Selling a vision in which people could “return to nature” without going anywhere, industrialists persuaded consumers to pursue communion with nature by buying and eating packaged breakfast food. Breakfast cereal manufacturers became some of the world’s largest food processors— and among its most widely-read nature writers, health authorities, and social reformers.

Fresh from the Factory follows the production and promotion of cereal as it developed in the early twentieth century. The first chapter tracks the cereal industry’s emergence out of a natural food movement that warmed to mass commerce over the nineteenth century. This movement’s spokespeople claimed to alone know what God, interchangeable with Nature, wanted people to eat. God’s authority proved useful for breakfast cereal producers, too, in branding their goods as “natural.” Subsequent chapters follow breakfast cereal from nature to table. To sell natural food, cereal companies spread new definitions of nature. These depictions rarely included plants or farms, instead emphasizing factories as the source of breakfast food and distribution in packages as the key to its freshness; in company nature writing, it was electric power, machinery, and pasteboard boxes that best mimicked the Garden of Eden. As cereal reached the table, consumers, regulators, and writers embraced, criticized, or even litigated against the product. Men often satirized the expensive grains in garish boxes, but many women found in cereal a more promising cure for sick children and arduous housework than the country retreats then favored by literary nature writers. By the early 1900s, breakfast cereal had become an American staple food, altering the country’s relationship to nature, cities, and the consumer economy.

The dissertation ends in the 1920s. By this point, the federal government did more to protect national health, more people bought prepared packaged foods, and vitamins and calories had ascended over religion-infused ideas about nutrition. Still, the breakfast cereal industry’s ideas of nature persisted, and so the dissertation concludes by reflecting on continuing links between reform, business, and nature. I intend for scholars across fields to find this dissertation useful in considering how industry and the environment shape each other and the capacity of capitalism to reform itself.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Jacoby, Karl H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 24, 2018