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Dear Cool Daddy’s Chex in the Mail
Dear Cool Daddy: I saw this recently in the Wall Street Journal…I remember Chex taking off like gangbusters in the 1950s and 60s, but does it really date back to the 1930s? …from Casper, in Sugartown
Dear Casper: Well, it sort of does…how’s that for a definitive declaration? I might mention that the suggestion that “from about 1916 to 1948, manufacturers didn’t introduce many new cereals” is an urban myth…as erroneously said of cereals as it is of virtually every other mass consumable category.
They tried to pull that one regarding Wrigley’s gum a while back, claiming there was only Doublemint, Spearmint, and Juicy Fruit until Big Red in 1976. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I called them on it, providing a good 2 dozen examples, and they printed a clarification, altho I wasn’t named…probably others caught the gaff too. Certainly, there wasn’t the avalanche of new cereals that began in the 1960s, and accelerated in the 1970s and 80s…but there was always a lot of experimentation, and since there were many more manufacturers in the first half of the 20th century, I wonder which way the ultimate totals (no pun intended) might tip.
At any event, here’s the dope: Starting around 1900, Ralston Purina made a phenomenally popular hot wheat cereal, at various times called Ralston “Health Food, “Wheat Food,” and “Breakfast Food.” By the 1930s, it was Ralston Cereal, or just “Ralston” for short…and was soon joined by a quick-cooking “Instant Ralston” variety. Next came a ready-to-eat product called Shredded Ralston, essentially bite-size shredded wheat biscuits. That’s the 1935 as stated in the above WSJ clipping…I have seen 1936 and 1937 also cited, and the first advertising I can find dates from 1938. It too was a success, so now we jump ahead to the Summer of 1951.
To coincide with the introduction of Rice Chex, Shredded Ralston is renamed Wheat Chex. (The iconic Chex trio would be rounded out by Corn Chex in 1959.) As you can see above, the box uses both names to alert the consumer…the phrase “the NEW Shredded Ralston” means the name and packaging, as the advertising copy also refers to Wheat Chex as “the cereal you’ve known as Shredded Ralston.” So that’s the short answer: the cereal dates back to the late 1930s, the Chex name to 1951.
But we can’t stop there…the real question is how and when did (A) and (B) above morph into the current (C)? Indeed, Wheat Chex was one of my breakfast favorites as a kid, and I remember dense, crunchy striated pillows…not the wimpy criss-cross squares of today. Working from illustrations found in advertisements and trade dress, there appears to have been a gradual evolution.
The name “Shredded Ralston” was gone from the Wheat Chex box within a year or so…but it’s interesting to note that Rice Chex was for several years still referred to as “shredded rice,” as seen in these 2 newspaper ads from 1952…
shamlessed plug chex…
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