2/23/10

September 1910 CREAM OF WHEAT AD


I like this ad. I know what it represents historically, but I can for a moment brush that aside and just enjoy the ad. I like the chef. He makes me happy. It's a piece of ephemera that carries a lot of baggage. I'll let someone else tell the history of Cream of Wheat and explain why the ad is wrong. I know it's wrong...but I still like it. This appeared on the inside cover of the September 1910 Delineator.

Cream of Wheat ad_Sept1910_tatteredandlost
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The following is from the January 21, 2003 North Dakota State University - NDSU Agriculture Communication. I'll let Tom Isern do the explaining:
January 31, 2003

Plains Folk: Cream of Wheat
Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University

It would be nice to think, as I cook up a pot of Cream of Wheat, that I were doing something prairie-patriotic. Cream of Wheat originated in Grand Forks, you know.

And it’s a good winter breakfast, with plenty of that standard lubricant for prairie diners, butter. Some sugar and cinnamon. And I stir in some homemade applesauce. Maybe then it’s my apples I like better than the Cream of Wheat, and so I’d really like to get some patriotic points for using the product. The problem is, history is against me on that.

Here’s the standard story on the origins of Cream of Wheat. (I rely here mainly on Bill Stolt’s account in a local history, “They Came to Stay.”) In the 1890s the Diamond Mill of Grand Forks had fallen on hard times due to the economic depression that began in 1893. The head miller, Thomas S. Amidon, convinced the partners (Emery Mapes, George Bull, and George Clifford, Sr.) that they should try making a porridge product using farina, that is, the “purified middlings” of the mill. George Clifford’s brother, Fred Sr., came up with the name Cream of Wheat because the product was so white.

This tapped into a couple of American sentiments of the time. The first was the concern about health and the role of grains in maintaining it. There were other grainy hot cereals around, such as Mello-Wheat, Wheatena and Post-O. The other appealing aspect was that the new cereal was white. White, especially around the turn of the 20th century, symbolized wholesome middle-class purity in the kitchen.

So Amidon shipped some of the new product to the mill’s broker in New York, who wired back not to send any more flour that was in surplus but “send us Cream of Wheat.” Soon it became the mill’s chief product.

The product has the cachet of humble origins. Amidon cut the first carton containers by hand. Mapes, a printer, did the labels, which included the image of what they then called a “colored chef,” a saucepan over his shoulder.

The company made good in great American success story fashion. In 1939 Cream of Wheat was enough of a bright spot in the midst of the Great Depression that Fortune magazine wrote it up and said, “It is a kind of Yankee fairy story.”

“Few breakfast foods,” recounted the journal, “hot or cold, have embedded themselves as firmly in the American taste as Cream of Wheat.”

Nowadays, though, I’m not digesting my Cream of Wheat so well. Of course, it’s no longer a homegrown enterprise. It was acquired in 1961 by the National Biscuit Company, and after that by Kraft, which today maintains a nice Cream of Wheat Web site (just type in www.creamofwheat.com), history and recipes and all. Kraft holds no sentimental appeal for me.

Moreover, there is the race issue. Cream of Wheat to this day features a smiling black chef on the box. Kraft insists there is nothing derogatory about this, the image is respectful and honorific, but that is bogus. Cream of Wheat advertising historically featured a black cook preparing steaming white cereal for white middle-class kids. The name of the black cook--I swear I am not making this up, Fortune wrote about it and thought it was cool--was Rastus.

That’s still not what bothers my digestion, though. The first thing historical I read about Cream of Wheat was an article in the Know Your North Dakota series disseminated by the Greater North Dakota Association (state chamber of commerce) in 1960. I read it in the collections of the North Dakota State University Institute for Regional Studies. The articles were distributed to promote state spirit.

Didn’t anybody at the GNDA vet these articles before they went out? Or did they just miss the point entirely? Cream of Wheat moved from Grand Forks to Minneapolis in 1897. After a promising start, it got the heck out of North Dakota. It may be a great business story, but it’s not a great North Dakota story.

OK, I still eat the stuff, but I no longer point to it as a matter of North Dakota pride.

Source: Tom Isern
Editor: Rich Mattern
(SOURCE: NDSU)
Update: I just found this site, Grapefruit Moon Gallery, which sells vintage original illustrations and they show a beautiful illustration for Cream of Wheat. Really stunning. Wish I could afford it. Anyway, the following information in the copy about the man in the ads:
The advertising also created one of the most recognizable, storied, and controversial fictional personalities in American history; Rastus the Chef. Based upon a photograph of African American chef Frank White, Rastus presided over Cream of Wheat boxes and appeared in the company’s color advertising campaign from much of the 20th century. His face was often presented as a photo element within the artwork so as to brand a single image of the iconic character. This photo element would be applied to the canvas and painted over and colored as needed by the artist. After the urging of the NAACP Cream of Wheat abandoned the name Rastus (one of many derogatory names used as racial slurs in the late 19th/early 20th century), but the chef remained an integral part of the brand. Always shown smiling, benevolent, and offering comfort, the chef presents an idyllic view of traditional America. This America holds a pre-industrial sense of the bounty of the heartland and also many of the racial tensions inherent to this agrarian image of America. The tension between the sometimes uncomfortable depictions of the Chef and the incredibly poignant nostalgic visions of a timeless America only adds to the historic significance of this uniquely American art. (SOURCE: Grapefruit Moon)

6 comments:

  1. I saw a recipe book, rather small, but came complete with the envelope, sent to a woman in Craig, Montana. On eBay. Opening price was $19. Too rich (despite the fact I liked the cover just as much as I like this ad) for my small purse...

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  2. Yes, I'm afraid eBay prices are way to high for me these days. By the time shipping is added it's well beyond my means. I just got my health insurance increase in the mail yesterday and felt like I've been hit with a fist. Even more belt tightening.

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  3. I've heard of Cream of Wheat but never tasted it, it's not part of our culture although I think we had farina. As a child I ate Farley's Rusks with hot milk on them so they mushed down, they were very tasty. Later I ate them with butter on them, but I know now they were full of sugar and salt, not really that good for my little body! On the subject of Kraft, it is so depressing how they take over all these smaller companies. They have just bought Cadbury's chocolate on the promise to keep the Bristol factory open, as soon as it was bought they announced they would shut that factory. And the government just sat back and let it happen, they better not mess with our choc though!

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  4. I'll admit to never having tasted Cream of Wheat. I can't get down any warm mushy breakfast cereal. Oatmeal? I run the other direction. I think more than the flavor it's the texture. Wallpaper paste.

    I understand your fear of what these huge corporations do when buying smaller companies. Identities are lost. Jobs are lost. I've watched it happen over and over again in publishing. A corporation buys a smaller publisher with assurances that everything will remain the same and then they come along two weeks before Christmas and say, "Ha! Just joking! You're all fired." They only wanted the back titles, not the people that created them.

    Recently there was concern here in the SF/Bay Area when Hershey's bought Scharffen Berger, a locally made premium chocolate. So far so good. Hershey's has left it alone.

    Perhaps with Kraft buying Cadbury, Flake bars will become more common on this side of the pond. I have to really look and look to find them.

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  5. I like that chef, too. He also made me happy. And I love Cream of Wheat. Thanks for doing the research to find out more about him.

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    Replies
    1. I'm glad you found the post. Every time I look at him I smile.

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