This blog covers everything except sports and gardening, unless we find a really good link about using dead professional bowlers for mulch. The author is a StarTribune columnist, has been passing off fiction and hyperbole as insight since 1997, has run his own website since the Jurassic era of AOL, and was online when today’s college sophomores were a year away from being born. So get off his lawn.

The Sad Song of Skippy

Posted by: James Lileks under Food and drink Updated: October 21, 2013 - 12:41 PM

The story of breakfast cereal is a lively and fascinating tale - the origins couldn’t be farther away from the demon Boo Berry, and the endless post-war variations are a fine lesson in marketing and design. Isn’t that enough? No. Digg teases the story thus:

HIJACKED BY CAPITALISM

How Cereal Transformed American Culture

Hijacked, eh? Diverted from its true course by (dah-dah-DUM) CAPITALISM? Meaning, someone saw an opportunity to profit, which ruined everything. The Mental Floss article has this summary:

More than a century ago, Christian fundamentalists invented cereal to promote a healthy lifestyle free of sin. Little did they know, their creation would eventually be used to promote everything from radio and cartoons to Mr. T and tooth decay.

No cereal ever promoted tooth decay, except in the sense used by Trident gum in the ads. Let’s go to the article:

During the early 19th century, most Americans subsisted on a diet of pork, whiskey, and coffee. It was hell on the bowels, and to many Christian fundamentalists, hell on the soul, too. They believed that constipation was God's punishment for eating meat. The diet was also blamed for fueling lust and laziness. To rid America of these vices, religious zealots spearheaded the country's first vegetarian movement. In 1863, one member of this group, Dr. James Jackson, invented Granula, America's first ready-to-eat, grain-based breakfast product. Better known as cereal, Jackson's rock-hard breakfast bricks offered consumers a sin-free meat alternative that aimed to clear both conscience and bowels.

It’s almost as if the author’s smug modern stance makes you doubt the veracity of his characterizations, doesn’t it? Then there’s this, later in the piece - a discussion on the rise of mascot marketing.

But a radical shift in demographics came in 1936, thanks to a boy named Skippy.

A Dennis the Menace type who frequently interrupted his adventures to extol the virtues of Wheaties, Skippy was the first cereal character directly marketed to children. As it turned out, kids ate him up, and cereal producers learned an important lesson: Children are suckers.

Skippy wasn’t a cereal character. Skippy was a creation of Percy Crosby, and he was popular before his use as a cereal mascot. Here the story gets interesting, although you wouldn’t know it from the article. Skippy is the real story. From skippy.com’s bio of Crosby:

Although he made a profound impression with millions of Americans, primarily through Skippy, the loveable and mischievous cartoon character who became a household word, Percy Crosby was unable to prevent retaliation by those who coveted control of Skippy for their commercial gain, and wanted him silenced.

What? Retaliation by people who wanted control of a cartoon character? Read on:

Percy Crosby was falsely imprisoned in a New York mental hospital for the last 16 years of his life, following years of harassment by the IRS. He referred to this period of his life as a "political witch hunt". During this time, Crosby's famous Skippy trademark and its valuable goodwill was pirated by a bankrupt peanut butter company, which later merged with a Fortune 500 company, making a fortune in illicit sales under the Skippy brand name.

WHAT? This is like learning that Jif ordered a hit on Peter Pan. Well, that's what the page put up by the pro-Crosby camp say; it details the long-going legal battles.  Let’s go to Wikipedia:

"Skippy" was first used as a trademark for peanut butter by the Rosefield Packing Co., Ltd., of Alameda, California, in 1933. Percy Crosby, creator of the "Skippy" comic strip, had the trademark invalidated in 1934, but Rosefield persisted after Crosby was committed to an insane asylum, and its successor companies, most recently Unilever and Hormel, have been granted rights to the trademark over the objection of Crosby's heirs. There has been much litigation on this point over the decades, some of which has continued into the 2000s.

Skippy comes in many different sizes, including a 4-pound jar, known as the "Family Jar".

Classic irrelevant pedantry, wiki-style. The  Wikipedia entry on Crosby says the IRS did indeed come after him, and he thought it was because of his political writings. Then it got worse:

The previous year, Crosby had begun drinking again, and his behavior became increasingly erratic. His marriage suffered, and after a violent episode in February 1939, Crosby left for Florida for two weeks. When he returned, repentant, his family had decamped, and his wife had filed for divorce. He never again saw his children, then aged five to nine. A devastated Crosby moved back to Manhattan and eventually entered Presbyterian Hospital for an extended stay for exhaustion and an infection.

The man who created one of his era’s most beloved child characters ever saw his children again. It’s like the real Dennis the Menace story.

The biography says he was declared a paranoid schizophrenic in ’49. He continued to write and draw, but nothing was ever published.

But we were talking about cereal. Turns out kids like sugar and cereal companies made money living up to the market’s expectation for sweet crunchy things, and so the original intent of cereal was HIJACKED and America was “transformed” and there were ads on TV that appealed to kids. Horrors. Here’s some more from the Mental Floss article:

Burnett was one of the earliest believers in motivational psychology and understood that colors appealed to kids and moms subliminally. When color TV became a reality, he persuaded Kellogg to use anthropomorphized cartoon animals as mascots. He thought animation would make for better, more colorful commercials. The first mascot they produced was Tony the Tiger, whose meteoric success was followed by hundreds of other cartoon icons.

In 1964, about three percent of US households had a color set. Here’s a Tony ad from 1956:

Tony was created in 1951. So if someone at lunch today says “you know, Tony the Tiger was invented because they wanted a mascot for color TV,” you’ll know they’ve been reading highly-compressed histories.

If you’re not properly horrified about the hijacking and the transforming, wander over to Mr. Breakfast and peruse the astonishing variety of cereal box art, and think back to your own childhood cereal experience. You thought you were enjoying that stuff. Hah! You were manipulated into thinking you were.

By the way, here's something you may not have known about the real-life Dennis the Menace:

The real-life Dennis was 12 in 1959 when his mother died of a drug overdose. . . . Dennis Ketcham served in Vietnam, suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and had little contact with his father.

Sigh.

DASH CAM FOLLIES They’re calling him “Russia’s Drunkest Driver,” which is a category all by itself.

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