Will Kellogg: King of Corn Flakes
How an Uneducated Flunkey Became a Renowned Entrepreneur
APRIL 01, 1998 by BURTON FOLSOM
The making of the first flaked breakfast cereal is a tale of sibling rivalry, a new church, and a health-food craze all in the small town of Battle Creek, Michigan. Today, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes are a staple of the American diet, but few people know the story of Will Kellogg’s rise to fame and fortune.
Kellogg’s story begins with the Seventh-Day Adventist church, which in 1860 established its headquarters in Battle Creek. The Seventh-Day Adventists are Christians who celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday and who believe in healthful living. Avoiding coffee, tea, tobacco, and meat—together with substituting bread, fruit, vegetables, and lots of water—is part of the creed of the Seventh-Day Adventists.
They built an institute in Battle Creek to promote healthful living. John Preston Kellogg, Will’s father, a broom maker, and an Adventist, gave $500, the largest contribution, to help build the institute. His other son, the talented John Harvey Kellogg, began writing for Adventist publications as a teenager. J.H., as he was often called, was precocious and confident. He pursued health as a career, and studied science at the University of Michigan and the Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City. He read the latest medical journals in French and German and became a master surgeon. When he returned to Battle Creek in 1876, he was well prepared to take over the Adventist institute and transform it into a first-class “University of Health.”
First came a name change. J.H., ever the publicist, invented the word sanitarium, a twist of the Latin word sanitorium, and dubbed the small Adventist health institute the Medical and Surgical Sanitarium. Nicknamed “the San,” Kellogg promoted it as a hospital, spa, and boarding house “where people [would] learn to stay well.”
Kellogg pushed the Adventist recipe for good health and added many of his own ideas: count calories, avoid sugar, and get regular exercise. He called his health program “biologic living,” and he put patients at the San through a daily regimen of calisthenics at 7 a.m., after which came cold-water baths, enemas, swimming, electroshock therapy, and a vegetarian diet. The day would often climax on the roof of the San with J.H. leading the patients in a march for good health.
Under J.H.’s confident and charismatic leadership, the San went from hosting a handful of patrons in 1876 to thousands each year by the early 1900s. He knew that most Americans could not afford the visit, so he wrote dozens of books to reach all the victims of poor diets. Biologic Living was a bestseller and earned Kellogg a national reputation. What Is the Matter With the American Stomach? and Tobaccoism: Or How Tobacco Kills were among his other literary efforts. His Itinerary of a Breakfast was a challenge to the fatty sausage-and-egg breakfast so popular among nineteenth-century Americans.
Kellogg was at home whether he was lecturing to an audience of lay people at the San or discussing surgical techniques with the finest physicians in Europe. His books made him one of the best-known physicians of his era, and his high degree of professionalism made him a respected member of the American College of Surgeons.
Not all of J.H.’s medical advice was sound. He condemned all spices, from mustard to salt. “Vinegar,” he concluded, was “a poison, not a food.” “Coffee cripples the liver,” he insisted, and colas were “insidious poison.” Nothing was more important than good eating, J.H. pronounced. To make his points, he often stunned listeners with overstatements. “If the whole truth were shown,” he said, “it would appear that the causes of indigestion are responsible for more deaths than all other causes combined.”
J.H. craved the limelight and reveled in publicity. He always wore white and moved about with an entourage of secretaries, nurses, and hangers-on. Sometimes he dictated essays and books to his secretaries, who frantically scribbled for ten hours at a time. If he had to travel by train, he liked to call the station and demand that the train be held until he arrived. There, several minutes late, before gawking passengers, the imperial Kellogg would arrive with his entourage.
As the San grew in popularity, J.H. found that he needed a business manager, someone reliable to answer mail, fix meals, screen patients, and repair the building while he was writing, lecturing, traveling, and showboating. That person would have to have J.H.’s full trust, but also would have to work for a small salary. (First-year nurses were expected to work for mere room and board; the pleasure of studying under J.H. was sufficient pay.) The manager would have to be competent but always subordinate to J.H.: strong egos need not apply. In fact, no one applied. Instead, J.H. drafted his younger brother Will Keith, or W.K., as many called him.
J.H. was eight years older than Will and never let him forget it. When they were growing up, J.H. gave him whippings from time to time and also used his backside as a foot warmer at night during Michigan’s cold winters. Will was always shy and grew up in the shadow of J.H.’s stunning successes. Will could never match his older brother, and dropped out of school when he was thirteen. One teacher, he later wrote, “thought I was dim-witted.” Apparently his family did, too. “My father,” Will confessed, “was not insistent upon my attending school . . . regularly.” So while J.H. was off at medical school mastering the techniques of surgery, Will worked at putting bristles in brooms. Even with that he had problems. When Will’s broom business in Kalamazoo failed, he returned to Battle Creek looking for opportunities—just about the time J.H. was looking for a lackey.
Twenty-year-old Will became the perfect business manager for the San. His quiet bashfulness and rare smile offset his brother’s flamboyance. At 5-foot-8, slim, and balding, Will was a regular sight most summer mornings jogging behind J.H., who pedaled his bike around Battle Creek detailing for Will his daily chores. A self-styled “flunkey” and errand boy, Will worked 80 and sometimes 120 hours a week packing books, mailing invoices, serving patients, and balancing ledgers. From pricing products to fixing meals, he had dozens of duties. “I was always notified when insane patients succeeded in getting away,” Will lamented, because he was the one who had to spend the night tracking them down. “I was so overloaded with work,” he later wrote, “that I am conscious that very little, if any of it, was performed satisfactorily.”
Part of Will’s crushing workload was inevitable. It wasn’t easy keeping up with the energetic J.H., who started 30 companies and magazines in a 50-year span. Will was the one saddled with the details of making them profitable. What bothered Will more than the work was the atmosphere: he did the labor and J.H. reaped the glory. Will never had a title, and only grudgingly did J.H. give him an office and a top salary of $3 a day. “I did the work as business manager of the sanitarium,” Will later wrote, “and got no glory and very little money.”
Will was more a slave than an employee at the San. He had to call his brother “Dr. Kellogg.” Reportedly, Will gave him a shave and shoeshine when needed. “Am afraid I will always be a poor man,” Will confided in his diary.
Indeed, Will might always have been “a poor man” had it not been for the accidental invention of flaked cereal. Fixing, preparing, and even inventing foods was always important to the San’s mission. The task was challenging, and Will sometimes joined his brother in food experiments. This was the case during 1894 when the two brothers fixed a mass of wheat dough, boiled it for different lengths of time, and put it through rollers to press it into large sheets.
A Flake Is Born
One night during these casual experiments, Will left the dough out overnight before he rolled it. When he later returned to the kitchen, he ran the dough through the rollers as before—but instead of forming a flat sheet, the dough broke up into flakes. Will was puzzled. The moisture had spread evenly to each individual wheat berry, and the dough had broken into flakes instead of binding together. Will could have thrown the flakes out and mixed up another batch of dough. Instead, he took them to his brother and suggested serving them at the San for breakfast. J.H. wanted to crush them into bits, but Will served the flakes whole.
The results seem to have surprised even Will. The folks at the San crunched happily during breakfast and asked for more. J.H. decided to patent the new process for flaked cereal. Meanwhile, Will also experimented with oat, barley, and corn flakes and served them regularly at the San. In fact, he had to start a small mail-order business to supply patients after they left the San. At 15 cents for each ten-ounce package, Will was doing a brisk business—he sold 113,400 pounds of flakes in 1896, the first full year of outside sales. That was especially impressive because the Kelloggs only told former patients and Adventists about their product.
Will urged J.H. to market flaked cereal on a massive scale. Will firmly believed that selling breakfast flakes was a remarkable way to make money and peddle good health as well. J.H., however, thought the risks were too high. “Let’s be content with a small business,” he told Will. J.H. also argued that such blatant commercialism might compromise his high standing in the medical community. In any case, he had already made his reputation. Why risk his fortune and his large house on a hazardous gamble with flaked cereals?
Will had a tough choice: Should he stay with his brother and live adequately or should he take a risk and enter the flaked-cereal business? He ended up staying for several more years. The high risks and his lack of self-confidence still held him back. “I am myself lamentably ignorant. . . .” he wrote his son. “The competition in the business world is such that the people with good educations are usually those who succeed.” Besides, he was over 40 years old. He resented his brother, but stayed with him anyway.
Finally, J.H.’s highhanded management helped push Will out of the nest. During one of J.H.’s foreign trips, Will experimented by adding sugar (technically “malt flavoring”), which was strictly forbidden at the San, to his flakes. Will also raised money and built a new food-processing plant to serve the growing number of customers who ordered the Kelloggs’ cereals. When J.H. came home he was furious: he condemned the use of sugar at the San and he ordered Will to pay for part of the new building out of his own pocket. At that point Will could take no more abuse. When the San burned down in 1902, Will told his brother he would help him rebuild it and then go out on his own. In 1906, at age 46, Will Kellogg would at last become his own boss.
Once freed of his brother, Will looked at the positive side. He had years of experience in business. He knew how to balance books, run a company, make cereal, and sell it on a small scale. If thousands liked flaked cereal, why not millions? Will slowly and methodically began raising the $200,000 start-up money from former San patients. In 1906, with capital in hand, Will pursued his dream of changing the nation’s breakfast habits. He became a cheerleader for flaked cereal, but he also had to be a diplomat. To secure J.H.’s reluctant cooperation Will had to give him a majority of stock in the new company. As profits came in, Will bought the company back piece by piece, but for a while he had to endure his brother’s continued meddling. Nonetheless, Will’s new freedom boosted his spirit. He wrote Arch Shaw, his business partner, “I sort of feel it in my bones that we are now preparing for a campaign on a food which will eventually prove to be the leading cereal of the United States, if not the world.”
Such confidence and focus were needed to help him overcome early problems. Most people outside of Battle Creek were skeptical of flaked cereal and few grocers wanted to carry it. And even if they could be persuaded to do so, what kind of flakes should he send them? And how would he separate his product from the imitators on the market?
Will did some test marketing and concluded that corn flakes were his most popular brand of cereal. He was too small to diversify; therefore, he would make only corn flakes.
A Venture into Advertising
He also decided to stake everything on advertising. It became the major item in his budget. His first ad began, “This announcement violates all the rules of good advertising.” He couldn’t ask readers to buy his product because most grocers didn’t carry it. Instead, he gave out coupons for free samples and then asked housewives to urge their grocers to stock Kellogg’s corn flakes so that the coupons could be redeemed. Corn flakes, he promised, were nutritious and tasted great; they were more than just a health food. In October 1906, he ran a similar ad in 17 magazines with over six million readers. All new ads carried this trademark sentence: “The original has this signature—W.K. Kellogg.” Will was not vain; he just wanted to separate himself from his brother and his imitators. By the end of the first year, Will had shipped out almost 180,000 cases of corn flakes and grocers were lining up to carry his product.
Skeptics told Will his corn flakes would never become a national product until he conquered the New York market. His response was a daring and risqué ad that read, “Wednesday is ‘Wink Day’ in New York.” The ad promised that every housewife in New York who winked at her grocer on Wednesday would get a free box of Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes. Will first ran those ads in all major New York newspapers on Wednesday, June 5, 1907. “This advertising will arouse the curiosity of the entire city,” Will predicted. And he was right. He sent posters to the grocers in New York to remind them that only Wednesday was Wink Day. “Don’t give out samples before then. If anybody winks on Monday or Tuesday, tell them to wink on Wednesday.” The Wink Day campaign boosted Will’s sales in New York from two carloads a month to over 30.
Those who thought of Will as “J.H.’s flunkey” were startled by his success. He had always worked hard and he knew how to run the San, but where did this boldness, creativity, and confidence come from? Freed from his brother, Will showed entrepreneurial skills that few knew he had.
His boldness in advertising and his calm leadership were just the beginning. He promoted new products, such as Rice Krispies and All Bran; his research team worked to improve the crunch and the quality of corn flakes; and he improved his packaging and advertising to the point where Kellogg out-distanced all of his competitors. He changed breakfast habits around the nation, and his name became a household word. His electric billboards lit up New York City. Corn flakes were munched the world over.
Yet Will was never arrogant or boastful of his turned-around life. J.H. was his perfect model of how not to behave. Before and after his success, Will was quiet and avoided publicity.
When Will reached age 70 he began to think more about philanthropy and less about business. “I never desired to become extremely rich,” he confessed, but he had become one of the wealthiest and most famous men in America. During the 1930s, he put about $50 million, most of his fortune, into the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to coordinate his giving. Will knew that J.H. could never match that.
As Will rose from errand boy to corn-flake king to world philanthropist, the one constant in his life was his rivalry with his brother. J.H., who once called Will a “loafer,” was disdainful and jealous of the meteoric rise of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. J.H. pronounced himself to be the “real” Kellogg and accused Will of selfishly exploiting the Kellogg name, which he, J.H., had made famous. Will bristled when he heard this. “For twenty-two and one-half years, I had absolutely lost all my individuality in you. I tried to see things through your eyes and do things as you would do them. You know in your heart whether or not I am a rascal.”
J.H. responded by adapting the Kellogg name for cereals he sold at the San. Will countered in 1910 with a lawsuit, claiming that J.H. was infringing on the brand name and confusing consumers. The Michigan courts decided in Will’s favor, and J.H. was restricted in using the Kellogg name. In defeat, J.H. waited for the chance to punish his upstart brother. In 1916, he took Will to court to bar him from selling bran products first developed at the San. But Will won this “battle of the bran,” too, and left his brother with large lawyer fees.
Will would need more than a couple of legal wins, however, to outshine his brother. J.H.’s dozens of books had sold over a million copies by the 1920s, and the San was a national landmark, a fashionable place for famous people to see and be seen. The most magnetic celebrity at the San, of course, continued to be J.H. himself. Dressed in white clothes, with white goatee, and a cockatoo on his shoulder, he would show reporters the San pool where Johnny Weissmuller, of Tarzan fame, broke a world’s swimming record after dieting on San food. Or J.H. might be up in an airplane, courting photographers and discussing biologic living with Amelia Earhart. Occasionally J.H. would head off to Paris, to study new advances in X-rays, or to Russia to advise Ivan Pavlov, the Nobel Prize winner, on the physiology of digestion. Much to Will’s disgust, J.H. pronounced himself philanthropist extraordinaire, a benefactor to all mankind.
Battle Creek was barely large enough to hold the two squabbling Kelloggs. The thousands who worked at the San or in the cereal factories knew better than to discuss one of the brothers in the presence of the other. After Will’s wife died, he began to date and care deeply for Dr. Carrie Staines, a physician at the San. When J.H. found out, he threatened to fire her, which was proof to Will that he should marry her—and he did.
The sibling rivalry came to a head in the late 1920s, when J.H. undertook a multimillion-dollar expansion of the San. When the Great Depression hit, however, America’s fashionable set stayed home and the San lost customers. Soon J.H. had to lay off workers to meet his payroll. While Will invested wisely and grew richer in the 1930s, the San went into receivership and had to be sold. As Will reached the peak of his career, he watched his brother relocate to a smaller building across the street. Ever the optimist, J.H. also opened a new health facility in Florida.
A Letter of Apology
As J.H. pondered his life and that of his brother, he began to feel remorse. He had misjudged Will and decided to make amends. In 1943, John Harvey Kellogg, possibly the most renowned physician in America, began to write a letter of apology. “I earnestly desire to make amends for any wrong or injustice of any sort I have done to you,” J.H. stated. “I am sure that you were right as regards the food business. . . . Your better balanced judgment has doubtless saved you from a vast number of mistakes of the sort I have made and allowed you to achieve magnificent successes for which generations to come will owe you gratitude.” There it was. J.H.’s recognition that his own star had almost faded, but that Will’s would burn brightly for generations. J.H. closed his seven-page letter, gave it to his secretary to mail, and waited to see what Will would do.
Will’s response, however, would never come. J.H.’s secretary read the letter, felt it was demeaning to her boss, and refused to mail it. That same year, J.H. died and the two brothers never reconciled. Five years later, when Will was 88 years old and near death, he was given the letter. At last, at the end of a long career, he realized he had won his brother’s respect and blessing. In those last years, Will was blind. He liked nothing better than to be driven to the Kellogg plant, park there, and listen to the noises from the factory—his factory. He had gone from uneducated flunkey to world-renowned entrepreneur. Even more remarkable, he had won his brother’s blessing.