A pioneer in the manufacture and mass marketing of breakfast cereals and other consumer products, Charles William Post (1854-1914) attempted to use his wealth to affect various aspects of early 20th-century American life.
Charles William Post, who preferred to be called C.W., was born on October 26, 1854 in Springfield, Illinois, his parents having migrated there from New England. The gift for language that would make Post's advertisements famous may have been nurtured by his mother, Caroline, whose poetry was published in several magazines. A restless, peripatetic nature passed from Post's father, Charles Rollin Post, who pursued a variety of occupations as he traveled throughout the country, including time at the California gold rush as a forty-niner.
Post's formal education ended at the Illinois Industrial College (later to become the University of Illinois), where he completed only a botany course and withdrew at the age of 15. In 1876 he borrowed $500 from his mother and started a general store in Independence, Kansas. Within a year Post sold his interest in the store and returned to Springfield. There he married Ella Merriweather and engaged in the design and manufacture of agricultural implements. The failure of the manufacturing enterprise and a nervous breakdown led Post to Texas, where he developed residential real estate near Fort Worth. A second nervous breakdown in 1890 compelled Post to seek the care of a doctor, John Harvey Kellogg, who operated the Battle Creek (Michigan) Sanitarium on behalf of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. At the sanitarium Post was fed a grain-intensive vegetarian diet featuring a variety of products formulated by Kellogg himself.
Post left the sanitarium after a few months and briefly attempted to operate a competing clinic, La Vita Inn, in Battle Creek. During this time he published a book, I Am Well!, which promoted "mind-cure, " a belief then fashionable among some American businessmen and intellectuals who denied illness as artificial and proclaimed the human mind capable of overcoming all physical disorders. La Vita Inn never attained significant success.
Early in 1895 Post began the manufacture of Postum, a grain product intended as a coffee substitute, similar to one of Kellogg's concoctions. The manufacture of Grape-Nuts, based on another Kellogg item, began the following year. Post named his new company Postum Ltd., after his original product. Postum Ltd. achieved wide-scale distribution of its products through massive spending on advertising in newspapers and magazines. Post viewed advertising as the most significant component of his business, stating that he didn't care who managed production or sales, as long as he wrote the advertising. His advertisements appealed to the health concerns of the American public, telling consumers that his products would put them on the "road to Wellville" and claiming that his breakfast items made red blood.
By the early 1900s Postum products were available nationwide and Post had become one of the top five advertisers in the country, spending over $1 million annually. His company's success made Post a millionaire. But success caused Post to grow restless, so he hired a team of professional managers to operate his company and turned his attention on other matters.
In 1902 Post proposed a type of mail currency, the "Post Check, " similar to today's money order. His efforts to gain congressional support for the item met strong opposition from New York Senator Thomas C. Platt, who was the president of the U.S. Express Company, which sold its own form of postal currency. The Post Check proposal also antagonized small-town merchants who feared that the new currency would facilitate the business of large mail-order houses at their expense. Mindful that those merchants carried his cereal products, Post eventually dropped his efforts on behalf of the Post Check.
Soon after, Post began to purchase what eventually became a total of more than 200, 000 acres in rural west Texas. There he built an ambitious planned community, Post City. Distressed by the arid conditions in the region, Post personally oversaw a series of experiments using large quantities of explosives in an attempt to "dynamite" rain out of the sky.
Post also devoted much of his time to supporting the "open shop, " joining the leaders of other small-to mediumsized business firms in attacking labor unionism. He lectured throughout the country and published full-page anti-union tirades in dozens of newspapers. Labor unions responded by organizing boycotts against Post's cereal products.
Failing health and an unhappy home life contributed to Post's death by suicide on May 9, 1914 in Santa Barbara, California. Marjorie Merriweather Post, C.W.'s only child, became Postum Ltd.'s sole owner. Under the guidance of Marjorie's second husband, the stockbroker Edward F. Hutton, Postum conducted an aggressive campaign to purchase other grocery brands, beginning with Jell-O in 1923. In 1929 Postum, which began in a barn, was transformed into the widely held General Foods Corporation.
C.W. Post is listed in the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, the Dictionary of American Biography, and the Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders. Gerald H. Carson's Cornflake Crusade (1957) discusses the rise of the breakfast cereal industry in Battle Creek and chronicles the activities of Post, the Kelloggs, and the many others who came to Battle Creek to exploit the early 1900s' breakfast cereal fad. Nettie Leitch Major's C.W. Post—the Hour and the Man (1963), a biography published privately under the sponsorship of Marjorie Merriweather Post, is available in many libraries. Although this book benefits from Major's access to the Post family's papers, her treatment of Post's life also possesses the shortcomings of a commissioned work.