Eating Naturally, Eating Globally: Labor and Ideas in Transit and the Birth of Breakfast Cereal

Saturday, January 9, 2016
Galleria Exhibit Hall (Hilton Atlanta)
Mookie Kideckel, Columbia University
The breakfast cereal industry emerged in the early twentieth century as both a leading food processor and a vocal advocate for “natural food.” Cereal producers and consumers attempted to adhere to their understandings of natural living at the turn of the century, and in doing so created environmentally conscious businesses with deep connections to global networks and trends. The labor involved in natural food, for instance, stood distinct from the immigrant workers who made much of the nation’s bread. Ads flaunting mechanized production processes that left food “untouched by human hands” soothed nativists convinced that foreignness in the factory led to disease in the pantry. If foreignness of labor caused problems, however, foreign ideas were indispensable: French dieticians, English factory owners, and German homeopaths influenced cereal producers’ recipes, factories, and rhetoric. Finally, cereal itself moved across borders and oceans as it became part of diets across the world. As cereal companies established industrial plants in Canada and the United Kingdom, they packaged with their food the ideology they had once borrowed. The story of cereal is thus an early instance of international green business: an American phenomenon reveals a transatlantic impulse to use the private market for protecting the environment and protesting industrial abuses.

My poster will capture this movement of labor, ideas, and products. It will display vivid imagery from newspapers, documents, and photographs. Cereal producers advertised their international influence. They also established photogenic factories and enticed visitors to them with visually rich materials. Their fellow reformers produced art and charts to promote their goals. Moreover, cereal products sold in part because of visual appeal: designs on cereal boxes helped convince consumers to purchase branded, packaged food. The poster will primarily feature these visuals, while small explanatory text will explain the industry’s significance as promoting reform-minded business. The poster will emphasize, in particular, how global exchanges shaped both the concept of natural living and the development of breakfast cereal, a food often—and incorrectly—viewed as uniquely American. I would be honored to present this novel contribution to environmental history and the history of capitalism at the 2016 meeting of the American Historical Association, should I be fortunate enough to be selected.

See more of: Poster Session # 1
See more of: AHA Sessions