L. Ron Hubbard, best known as the founder of Scientology and father of all “Free Stress Tests,” once tried to save humanity not by auditing people, but by auditing breakfast. Writing to Kellogg’s corporation as a “grossly annoyed breakfast eater” Hubbard proclaims that, “cereal boxes have nothing to show or say beyond the lauding of their own contents.” The invective that Hubbard expresses in this 1930s letter is not just the musing of someone who is not a morning person. His diatribe against commercialism at the breakfast table morphs throughout the course of the missive’s three pages into a vision of artistic, soul-nourishing cereal boxes that bring poetry to the people and set e-meters humming joyful tunes.
At the time Hubbard wrote this letter, he was not yet a notorious religious leader but a struggling fiction writer trying to figure out how to make his mark on the world. Although the main premise of his letter is to get life-enriching literature onto the breakfast table, he was not angling to place his own writing there, but was instead suggesting that Kellogg’s might cover their boxes with Western ballads from the public domain like “Casey Jones,” “Jesse James,” and “Her Face on the Barroom Floor.” While a reckless engineer, a crazy gunman, and an artist who expires on a chalk rendition of his beloved may present a lot of death and suicide for the morning... who can argue with free literature?
For someone who purports to be disturbed by the commercialism of the physical box of cereal, Hubbard's letter incredibly respectful of Kellogg’s as a commercial enterprise. The addition of royalty-free poetry is not the only cost-conscious measure he discusses—by relegating splashy advertising to a “semi-transparent” (and disposable) wrapper, Hubbard proposes a box that is commercially competitive on the grocer’s shelves without tainting the poetry of the breakfast table. He claims that mothers will be wooed by boxes decorated with watercolors from the Smithsonian’s collection, that fathers sharpen their minds by memorizing poetry while they eat, that elders will reminisce about the great American ballads, that children will impress their teachers with their all their early morning learning, and that savvy admen will recognize that such a good idea is bound to nab a little free publicity when it is inevitably featured in Life Magazine. Hubbard concludes by saying that the goal is to “place the cereal on the table instead of in bowls before it went to the table.” In a Don Draper-esque conclusion to his pitch he even proclaims that the cultural treasure trove on his proposed box will make Cornflakes “synonymous for bravery and gallantry.”
But this is no simple attempt to land a job in the creative offices of Kellogg’s. Some of the grander moments of his vision don’t seem to be pitched at a corporate office, but from one aspiring guru to a guru of history. William Kellogg, first generation Seventh Day Adventist, creator of the Cornflake, commercializer of health food, and founder of the Battle Creek Sanitarium may have been dead when Hubbard’s letter arrived in Michigan, but had he been alive, he might have admired Hubbard's gumption. Patients at Kellogg’s “The San,” dubbed “Battle Freaks,” ate cleansing diets, endured long days hooked up to dynameters and the pneumograms, and were surrounded by an all Seventh Day Adventist staff. After dinner each night, patients assembled as a drill team for a “Battle Creek Sanitarium March."
Tom Cruise and John Travolta may have been born too late to chow down on bran and visit the Acidophilus Milk Bar at the Battle Creek San, but Kellogg’s list of San enthusiasts was awfully star studded for its day. Like the Scientology Celebrity center exists to court the famous who will make a public face for the religion, “The San” made its name with visits from the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Lyndon B. Johnson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Upton Sinclair, and even Sojourner Truth.
So what if these two kindred spirits had had a chance to collaborate? Would a whole generation have learned all the ballads that they “covertly wished they knew”? Would America be smarter, happier, and healthier? Maybe, or maybe the answers of Dianetics would have read a little differently. It might have been something like this:
How can a person suddenly lose confidence?
p. 194 By staring too long at a list of mysterious cereal ingredients.
Can your mind limit your success?
p. 307 If you spend too much time in the company of juvenile cartoon characters.
Can you reach your full potential?
p. 28 If and only if your mornings are spent enriching your mind in the service of memorizing “Casey Jones.” Whole grain cereal and the ABAB rhymed song-poetry of the west will play off each other in mystical, mind expanding ways.
Time to tell the IRS to make Extra Crispy a tax exempt organization: John H. Kellogg and L. Ron Hubbard had it right—breakfasting should be a religious experience.