When Beth and I were dating, her fondness for Grape-Nuts was a topic of discussion. The cereal is very crunchy but not good if you let the milk soak a bit. (She has since moved on to other kinds of breakfast foods.) Then we found an old magazine ad for Grape-Nuts in an antique store. We began a small collection of such ads, some framed for their quaintness---especially ones that depict only men in executive roles---and as an inside joke about her former enjoyment of the product.
The cereal inventor C. W. Post developed Grape-Nuts cereal in 1897. According to one explanation, Post thought that “grape sugar” (his term for sucrose) resulted from the baking process. The wheat and barley cereal, in turn, had a nutty consistency once baked and produced. I suppose the hyphen (or in some of the early ads, a colon, a plus sign, or an equal sign) was intended to convey that this was a trademarked product name and not, literally, nuts from grapes. The Post cereal company website provides some history of Grape-Nuts, which in the early days was often advertised with the slogan, “There’s a reason.”
My family recently browsed at a favorite highway stop, The Heart of Ohio Antique Mall near Springfield, Ohio. There, they found a batch of antique ads and purchased several for Grape-Nuts for my Christmas present. The ads are so interesting as early 20th century advertising. One, a page from McCall’s magazine, June 1925 depicts a listless looking woman in her robe, half-dozing over her light breakfast.
"The Dangerous Toast-and-Coffee Breakfast
“The meagre [sic] breakfast, hastily eaten, is becoming a national bad habit…. A single serving of this tempting food contains more varied nourishment than many a hearty meal.” It goes on to say “the delicious flavors of these golden grams are brought out with a richness unmatched in any other food. That is why Grape-Nuts, with cream or whole milk, is a favorite breakfast dish in millions of American homes.”
Cream? Sounds fatting! But another ad, from 1920, promises that “Baby faces grow plump and ruddy” on the cereal.
The humor of such ads comes from the recognition of changing habits, values, and social roles, as well as different uses of words. Here’s a page from Woman’s Home Companion, September 1930.
“A good old friend dons a gay new dress.”
The ad shows how the Grape-Nuts box changed from a yellow one with black letters to a yellow box with blue letters. Not a significant change, to me, but perhaps it seemed so at the time.
The Post website notes that Grape-Nuts was originally marketed not only for its specific nutritional content but its benefits as “brain food.” Several ads identify the vitamins and minerals in the cereal, like this page from The Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1925.
“Don’t let your great-great-grandmother tell you want to eat!
“Plenty of rich, heavy food for every meal was great-great-grandmother’s idea of feeding a family…Nowadays, diet must be carefully adapted to the strain, the sedentary work, the nervous intensity of modern living. Fortunately, the wives of this generation are learning more about food and food values than the wisest omen of great-great-grandmother’s time ever dreamed of.” The description also extols the dextrins, maltose, and carbohydrates, iron and phosphorus, protein, and the vitamin B of Grape-Nuts.
As far as “brain food” is concerned.... this undated ad shows the interior of an ancient throne room and states:
“Many a Chair of Power Stands Empty…Awaking the man with keen, active Brains and good health---Brains that can 'do things' that can deliver the Service. Grape-Nuts builds good bodies and healthy Brains---’There’s a Reason.’”
The Country Gentleman, December 1926, has this message:
“Watch your diet—especially breakfast! Here’s a rule for success and happiness given you by 150 brilliantly successful men! Chose all your meals carefully. Choose breakfast very carefully…Famous men say that your morning meal must be right, or your day’s work wont be right.”
And The Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1909, informs us:
“Ball-Players need snap and judgment. Grape-Nuts may be found on the tables of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Ann Arbor, West Point, etc., and wherever brain and brawn are essential. ‘There’s a Reason.’”
An ad from 1930 shows a woman in swimsuit, ready to dive into a pool. An appeal to women’s fitness and athletics? In a way, but the ad mainly promotes dental health:
“To a lady who is just going to dive, what about your teeth? They need exercise, too.
“Of course, you know how greatly exercise benefits the body---how it stimulates, invigorates and beautifies. But do you know that exercise is every bit as important for the health and beauty of your teeth and gums? Do you know that the fast-increasing dental troubles of today are largely due to lack of chewing?"
From The Farmer’s Wife, May 1931:
“A track man can’t train in a rolling chair. Teeth can’t train on ‘Mush.’”
This ad, which (in the racial mores of the time) features a white runner in a rolling chair, with a black porter ready to push him, and the copy describes the dental advantages of eating the cereal (crunchy to chew, after all), analogous to an athlete’s training.
Of course, the cereal has to taste good, too. Here is The Ladies’ Home Journal, February 1927:
“These golden kernels. People eat them for crispness…for balanced nourishment…above all for flavor.”
A sweet ad from 1919 has a pretty girl at a market counter, with the grocer pointing to a display of the plain Grape-Nuts boxes (prior to their “gay new dress”), who says:
“--The kind that tastes best? Well, little one, you must mean Grape:Nuts ---it surely makes little girls round and rosy.”
I look through the other ads, some from the World War I era, others depicting everyday family life.
“In Childhood---and All Along Life’s Way Grape=Nuts and cream.”
“Economical—Easily Digestible—Delicious. ‘There’s a Reason’ for Grape-Nuts.”
“Deeds of Valor come from men of sturdy strength and active brain.”
“Grape+Nuts Builds stout bodies and keen minds. ‘There’s a Reason.’”
“Children’s teeth require 'inside' treatment as much as outward care.”
“America’s Foremost Ready-to-Eat Cereal. When war called for the saving of wheat, Grape=Nuts stood ready with its superb blend of cereals, its wonderful flavor, fullest nourishment, and practical economy. Grape=Nuts. The Food For the Times.”
Among other things about these ads (reflective as they are of their times), they are interestingly similar to contemporary concerns for health and urge a kind of national health renewal. They don't use terms like our "obesity epidemic," but they remind food purchasers of the importance of balanced meals and good health, not only for the individual but for the good of society!