Enjoy Some Cream of Wheat for National Cereal Day

March 7th is National Cereal Day!  To honor this occasion, Modern Graphic History Library looks at the early 20th century advertising for Cream of Wheat, which debuted in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair.


by Leslie Thrasher, 1912

In the early 20th century, Cream of Wheat advertising became very prominent in the major magazines, including Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal.  The full page color advertisements were illustrations often located on the inside front cover, one of the few places where color printing was used.  Cream of Wheat was not the only cereal company to use full color ads — Kellogg’s often had the back inside cover or back cover advertisement of the same magazines.

mghl_wheat 2
by Edward V. Brewer, from Collier’s, May 22, 1915

The ads are often charming and nostalgic of this early 20th century America and yet at the same time, controversial, since at the center of these ads is a reminder of the racial insensitivity during this time in history, just decades after the Civil War ended.  The constant juxtaposition of the nostalgia and the racial stereotyping can make the ads uncomfortable to view.

mghl_wheat 3
by H. T. Benton, from Saturday Evening Post, February 21, 1914

Cream of Wheat promotional packaging (and later advertising) included the character Rastus, a smiling African American chef dressed in the white chef’s jacket and toque.  Rastus was always friendly and willing to serve cereal to everyone; he also spoke in broken English, was shown to be uneducated, and in some instances, acted buffoonish.

mghl_wheat 4

by Frank Verbeck, from Ladies’ Home Journal, March 1912

The name Rastus was often used as a racial slur in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  One of the first known uses of the name in print was as a character in the first Uncle Remus book, three years before Cream of Wheat started using it.  Eventually, the racially charged name was abandoned, at the urging of the NAACP, but the character, now without a name, remained as part of the cereal’s identity.

mghl_wheat 5

by Edward V. Brewer, 1917

In 1900, the company reportedly paid $5 to photograph an African American chef in a Chicago restaurant, but never recorded the chef’s name.  This photograph would serve as the basis for the Rastus character in advertisements and box packaging.  It was later discovered that the unnamed chef was Barbados native Frank White, who moved to the United States in 1875 and eventually became an American citizen.

mghl_wheat 6

by W. V. Cahill, Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1, 1911

In some illustrations, the chef is a key figure, interacting with cereal eaters, often children.  In other advertisements, only his face and the Cream of Wheat logo are included.  In these cases, his face was a photo element that the illustrators would apply to the canvas and paint over, to give a consistent look to the brand identity.

mghl_wheat 7

by Henry F. Wierman, Saturday Evening Post, December 1, 1917

In the advertisement above, not only is a photo element used of the chef, but also of a previous 1910 advertisement by W. V. Cahill of a child playing with blocks.

Unlike other major advertisers of the time, who often contracted with one artist for a period of time, to create a uniform brand identity, Cream of Wheat contracted with many of the top commercial artists.  Illustrations by different artists would appear during the same year, but all with a similar art style, and all using the photograph of Frank White as the basis for the chef.  This Loyd L. LaDriere Jack Sprat artwork appeared the same year as the ad of the two children playing store (shown earlier).

mghl_wheat 8

by Loyd L. LaDriere, 1915 

Modern Graphic History Library hopes you enjoy National Cereal Day.


The Cooking Lesson by W. V. Cahill is from the Periodicals Collection.  All other images are from the Walt Reed Illustration Archive.

Information for this blog came from :

Flory, Brad. Was the Cream of Wheat Chef a Real Person? Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Ferris State University, December 2004.

Halla, Emerpus. Cream of Wheat : a Black Face on a White Product. Facebook. December 6, 2012

Rastus. Wikipedia, no date.

September 1910 Cream of Wheat Ad. Tattered and Lost Epherma, February 2010.


About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.