C.W. Post was a brilliant huckster who invented Grape Nuts and Postum. He founded Post Cereals, which eventually became General Foods, one of the largest processed food companies in the world.
Post spent his entire life suffering many real and imagined illnesses. At age 59, he thought he had appendicitis and hired a nonstop train from his home in California to Rochester, Minnesota, so he could have his appendix removed by the most famous surgeons of the time, Drs. William and Charles Mayo at the Mayo Clinic. It is arguable whether he ever did have his appendix removed, but he returned home to California still suffering from belly pain, and a few months later he put a shotgun to his head and killed himself. His 27-year-old daughter, Marjorie Merriweather Post, inherited his vast fortune and became the richest woman in the world.
Early Life and Path to Riches
Post was born in 1854 in Springfield, Illinois, and worked as a salesman, manufacturer and inventor of agricultural machines. In 1891, at age 37, he had a “nervous breakdown,” which means that a person becomes so overwhelmed by anxiety, depression and inability to reason properly that he cannot function effectively in his job or relationships with other people. He moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, to be treated by world-famous John Harvey Kellogg, who had a sanitarium where he claimed to cure people miraculously with a vegetarian diet, daily enemas and abstention from sex. Post’s behavior was so bizarre that Dr. Kellogg put him in a wheelchair, told him never to eat meat again, prescribed a diet that was loaded with fiber, gave him daily enemas and took all his money, eventually leaving Post with no funds whatever. Since Post couldn’t pay for his medical advice any more, Dr. Kellogg kicked him out of the sanitarium. Without any money, Post had to use his wits to make a living, so he used his most persuasive possession, his mouth.
He Invented Postum in 1894
Post decided that he wanted to be as rich as Dr. Kellogg, so he decided make money just like Dr. Kellogg did. It didn’t matter at all that he had no medical degree. In 1892, at age 38, he persuaded several local people to lend him money and he set up his own sanitarium. He remembered how badly he missed meat when he was on Dr. Kellogg’s diet, so he allowed his clients to eat meat.
Post knew that Dr. Kellogg made a great deal of money from his new coffee, “Minute Brew,” made from cereal grains. Post bought a used gasoline stove for roasting bran, a small hand-operated peanut roaster for roasting wheat, and an old fashioned coffee grinder, and invented Postum, which was a coffee substitute made primarily of roasted wheat bran. It sold like hot cakes.
Post was a clever but shady advertiser who created fictional medical testimonials to praise his products. He created fictional doctors who would appear in magazine and newspaper advertisements, claiming that coffee caused “. . . divorces, business failures, factory accidents, juvenile delinquency, traffic accidents, fire or home foreclosures.” He invented the term “Coffee Neuralgia,” claiming that coffee caused headaches. He claimed that coffee caused a disease called coffee heart, and Postum would cure that heart disease. He advertised that coffee caused “coffee nerves” and that Postum would cure nervous breakdowns and depression. Coffee also caused “lost eyesight” and Postum would cure blindness. Post was such a persuasive advertiser that he made $250,000 in just his second year of production.
Grape Nuts Cereal Created in 1895
Since people drank Postum mostly in the winter, Post needed a summer product and came up with Grape Nuts, a cereal that he claimed cured appendicitis, loose teeth and even tuberculosis and malaria. Each package of Grape Nuts came with a copy of his book, The Road to Wellville. By 1901, at age 47, Post was making more than a million dollars a year in profit. He advertised that Grape Nuts cereal, which contained wheat bran and molasses, was more healthful than bread. Grape Nuts is high in healthful fiber, and the molasses has been removed from the recipe, so today it is one of the few dry cereals that do not have a lot of added sugars.
In 1898, he built his massive production plant to make his “life-saving and disease-curing” foods. In 1899, he built his own paper mill, the Battle Creek Paper company, which became the carton and container division of Post products.
Scandal and Legal Battles
In 1901, 47-year-old C. W. Post divorced his loving and faithful wife and ran off with his 27-year-old secretary. Dr. Kellogg hated Post because of all the nasty things Post said about his products, so he grasped on this scandal to claim that Post was Satan. Post responded by suing Kellogg. The tiny village called Battle Creek was now the health food center of the United States and it was not big enough for the both of them. The village was so small that they had to trade dirty looks when they frequently passed each other on the street. The false advertising claims that Post made about medical benefits from his products had made him so rich that he was able to build a whole city in Texas.
On May 9, 1914, 60-year-old C.W. Post shot himself and was buried in Battle Creek. His arch rival, John Harvey Kellogg, outlived him by 29 years and died at age 91, in 1943. Kellogg’s enterprises became the Kellogg’s cereal company, while Post’s company ballooned into General Foods, which continued to make ridiculous, incredibly unsupportable health claims for its products until 1951, when the U.S. Federal Trade Commission began to regulate advertising and packaging.
Marjorie Merriweather Post
On his death, Post’s daughter and heir, Marjorie Merriweather Post, became incredibly wealthy, and increased her position by marrying E.F. Hutton, financier and co-founder of E.F. Hutton Company. One of her estates became the former C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, and another was the now-famous Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. She used a portion of her huge fortune to buy artifacts of Czarist Russia from Soviet authorities just before the outbreak of World War II, loading her three yachts with treasures and bringing them to the United States. This spectacular collection can be seen today in her former estate that is now Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C. Her only daughter and heir was actress Dina Merrill.
Charles William (“C.W.”) Post
October 26, 1854 – May 9, 1914