Depressed Farmers, Well Fed ToddlersPosted: October 10, 2012
The other day on a usual jaunt to my local dry goods store, something caught my eye. Something in a red box, something in a yellow box. There was also one in a white box. Oh, these boxes reminded me of many a weekday morning with my father. He with Cheerios and dagwoods, me with a rat’s nest of blonde hair and hot cereal. I can clearly remember whining about how it was too hot for my tiny mouth (as well as not sweet enough), to which he’d drop an ice cube in and go back to sipping his coffee, ignoring my pleas for more sugar. Those were the mornings.
Cream of Wheat. The other day while I was gathering my weekly provisions, I saw it sitting there on the shelf and it brought back all those memories. (Plus, this time, I could put in as much sugar as I wanted to and rot my permanent teeth like a responsible adult.) I snatched up my box greedily and fairly skipped out of the store, looking forward to the first brown sugary bite from the days of yore.
So of course you know where this is going. Of course this is going to be a primer on the history of Cream of Wheat. I mean, wasn’t the dry goods store reference just leading you right to the doorstep on that one?
Anyways, lets just dive in.
For those one or two of you who may have never seen it, Cream of Wheat is essentially just wheat porridge. The farmers who invented this stuff in the late 19th century weren’t revolutionary, people have been eating wheat porridge all over the world since the days of Ancient Rome. However, these guys were just the first ones to put it in a box and sell it to us Americans in volume.
Cream of Wheat came to be thanks to an economic depression called The Panic of 1893. Back in 1893 the American economy had taken a large hit because of overextension of the railroad system in the 1880′s as well as a rapid influx of silver hitting the market. From 1893-1897 there was an unemployment rate of around 11-14% nationwide, which probably felt much like it does today in the current economic climate. First the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad went bankrupt, then it was like the cords that lashed the jobs in the nation were cut. People were nervous, people lost jobs, it was all going to hell.
In this panic, farmers Emery Mapes, George Bull and George Clifford were feeling the heat. These three men had a tiny flour mill in Grand Forks, North Dakota that they were struggling to keep in the black while the rest of the economy tanked. Enter Tom Amidon, head miller of their small mill.
Mr. Amidon told Mapes, Bull and Clifford about this breakfast porridge that his family had been
stealing eating from the mills for a while then, and they rather liked it. The porridge was basically wheat that had only been rolled once, during the initial phase of milling flour. The family heated up the wheat in some water (or milk), made a slurry and viola! Happy toddlers and well fed families.
As the wheat was from the first roll of the mill, Amidon called the food “cream of wheat” as cream is the first thing to rise to the top. He convinced his bosses to try pitching his newfangled breakfast porridge to the company’s New York brokers, Lamont, Corliss & Company. Amidon, noting the very slim profit margin that the company was working with, believed in this product so much that he even went as far as to print up the boxes himself as well as making the shipping crates as well. The man had some cojones on him, admitting that he was stealing runoff from his own employers and then trying to repackage and sell it to their biggest client.
Amidon’s shot in the dark worked. In less than a day from the time the shipment arrived (by train) to New York, the brokers at Lamont, Corliss & Company had told Mapes, Bull and Clifford to forget the flour and concentrate solely on this magical wheaty food of the gods.
Over the next four years, Cream of Wheat flew off the shelves, thereby saving this little mill in North Dakota from financial ruin. In fact, sales became so popular that the entire Cream of Wheat operation moved to Minneapolis in 1897 to accommodate for the massive volume of wheat sent in and out of the region- both raw and in finished box form. By 1903 even that plant was too small and the company relocated to First Avenue North and 5th Street in town. (That plant remained in operation until 1928.)
The popularity of Cream of Wheat has really never waned since that genius moment in 1893. Part of it may be because just about everyone could eat cream of wheat from infants to invalids (unless you’re gluten intolerant!) and the packaging was unique at the time, featuring four color printing and effective use of illustration. Think about it. You knew that you were getting wheat sludge in a box, which tastes like nothing, but if it was packaged in a hip looking box you’d buy it just because it looked extra sassy in your basket, right?
Anyways, in 1962 Nabisco bought up Cream of Wheat. Cream of Wheat was a staple of the company’s grocery division for 20 years at least, surviving company mergers and acquisitions, name changes and turnovers. Cream of Wheat was turned over to Standard Brands, then Phillip Morris and eventually- to the company who still owns it now- B&G. Cream of Wheat is still a major player in the hot cereal world today, rivaling oatmeal in its popularity (except for with the afore mentioned gluten intolerant people).
And there you have it. The fascinating and somewhat ballsy history of Cream of Wheat. As I polished off my first bowl in many years, laden with too much salt and sugar, I was transported to the wayback, wishing I had dropped an ice cube in my bowl as I still burned my tongue on it.