Before Kellogg’s Cornflakes, America Had Cerealine
By Mary Giorgio
As one of the first dry breakfast cereals to be manufactured and sold in America, Cerealine changed the way Americans ate breakfast. After hitting the market in the 1880s, it quickly supplanted more traditional foods like bacon & eggs, grits, and flapjacks as a healthier option for modern life.
Cerealine hit the market at a time when the concept of scientific eating had become the established approach to home economics. The Department of Agriculture had rolled out a science-based approach to nutrition education that included an aggressive campaign to influence what Americans ate. The agency’s educational pamphlets were widely distributed across the country. Chief among their recommendations were economical foods that offered a high nutritional content.
Cerealine was exactly what they were looking for. The food claimed to be extremely nutritious and incredibly economical. It could be served with minimal preparation and prepared by almost anyone. Cerealine was a lifeline for the food-poor populations living in America’s crowded tenement dwellings.
The cereal was patented by Joseph Gent, a miller and co-owner of Gaff, Gent & Thomas Co. in Columbus, Indiana. Gent had learned the milling trade from his father. Father and son had worked side-by-side at the family grist mill before Gent became an employee of Gaff & Thomas Co. in 1867. Gent was eventually made a partner in the firm. The mill originally produced hominy that was sold to distillers. It later refocused its efforts on the sale of dried cereal following Gent’s patent of the machinery needed to process and mass-produce the flaked corn product.
The idea for the device was discovered by accident after a worker at the mill alerted Gent to the fact that when rollers came in close contact, they turned kernels of corn into a flake. Gent apparently brushed off the finding, telling the man, James Vannoy, to get back to work. Gent must have been a bit of a crook, because after encouraging Vannoy to abandon the idea, Gent patented the invention himself.
Gent’s business partner, Thomas Gaff, was happy to let Gent run with the idea. Gaff and his brothers owned a distillery in Aurora, Indiana, and their interest in the mill stemmed largely from its ability to supply them with hominy.
The Gaff brothers (Thomas, James, and John) had moved to Indiana from Philadelphia, where they had operated a successful mill prior to the Panic of 1837. In Aurora, they established the T. & J. W. Gaff & Co. distillery on the banks of Hogan Creek. The distillery produced bourbon, rye, and Thistle Dew scotch whiskey. The brothers also operated the Crescent Brewing Co., which was famous for its Aurora Lager Beer. The beer was so renowned that it was shipped internationally and even said to be a favorite in Germany.
As the brothers’ success in Aurora grew, they diversified their interests to include ownership in related enterprises. Thomas Gaff owned farms, steamboats, and the mill in Columbus. He also invested in turnpike & canal construction.
The Gaff brothers were influential in the development of Aurora, backing the city’s first utility company, founding its first bank, incorporating a cemetery, and organizing its school system. They even purchased the city’s first fire engine. Thomas and James Gaff both served terms on the city council, while John eventually became the city’s mayor.
With Thomas Gaff preoccupied with his many other business interests, the day-to-day operations of the mill fell to Gent. With the discovery of the method to produce flaked corn around 1880 and subsequent patent, Gent slowly shifted the mill’s focus to the production of the new corn flake product. Not only could it be sold as dry cereal, but Gent discovered that the flake was a viable malt alternative for brewers.
It might seem counterintuitive that the same corn flake that was marketed as a breakfast cereal could also make an excellent additive for alcohol. In fact, the dry corn cereal of the late-nineteenth-century bore little resemblance to the cereals we find in the breakfast aisle of the grocery store today. They were developed for their nutritional content and economic price. In fact, advertisements for Cerealine Flakes claimed that Cerealine was
“made from pure white Maize, contains, by the exactest chemical analysis, more actual nourishment than any other preparation of the cereals, and this nourishment is, by the exactest test, more digestible than that of any other farinaceous food known.”
No one ever claimed that the cereal tasted good. That inconvenient fact seemed to have little impact on the cereal’s popularity, though. In the late-nineteenth-century, Cerealine was one of the three most popular breakfast options on the market, along with cracked wheat and oatmeal.
Cerealine was sold to retailers in large barrels. Shopkeepers would, in turn, sell it to customers in one-pound increments. The cereal was later sold pre-packaged for 20 cents each.
Although Cerealine is thought to be one of the first manufactured dry cereals sold in the United States, it was not eaten like the crunchy flakes we know today. Instead, it was reconstituted and eaten more like cream of wheat or porridge. The crunchy corn flakes that we know today, manufactured by Kelloggs, weren’t invented until 1894. They first appeared on the consumer market in 1906.
Recipes to make Cerealine more palatable appeared in many late-nineteenth-century cookbooks. Some cookbook authors even recommended adding the corn flakes in their reconstituted form to bread, muffins, and pudding. Home cooks could thus add the nutritional content of Cerealine to their breakfast foods without their families being any the wiser.
Cerealine remained a mainstay in the breakfast food industry into the early twentieth century. In 1892, operations moved from Columbus to Indianapolis to take advantage of lower shipping costs. By 1898, the mill in Indianapolis was processing 12,000 bushels of corn each day into the dry cereal. In 1902, the Cerealine mill merged with several other midwestern mills to form the American Hominy Co.
Cerealine eventually fell out of favor and was discontinued by its manufacturer sometime before 1920. American Hominy Company went out of business in 1924. While the dry cereal we enjoy today bears little resemblance to its forerunner, the invention of Cerealine represented a significant step forward in the development of modern dry cereal. Over 130 years later, the influence of Cerealine can still be seen in what millions of Americans eat for breakfast.