General Foods Corporation was a company whose direct predecessor was established in the USA by Charles William Post (October 26, 1854 - May 9, 1914) as the Postum Cereal Company in 1895. The name General Foods was adopted in 1929, after several corporate acquisitions. In November, 1985 General Foods was acquired by Philip Morris Companies (now Altria Group, Inc.) for $5.6 billion, the largest non-oil acquisition to that time. In December, 1988 Philip Morris acquired Kraft, Inc., and in 1990 combined the two food companies as Kraft General Foods (KGF). "General Foods" was dropped from the corporate name in 1995 and now exists only as part of a brand name for a flavored coffee-based beverage, General Foods International. General Foods also sponsored Lucille Ball's 3-year running TV show until 1951, My Favorite Husband.
In 1897 Post introduced his first dry cereal, a crunchy blend of wheat and barley, which he called Grape Nuts. His first corn flake product, originally called "Elijah's Manna," appeared in 1904. Owing to consumer resistance to the biblical reference, it was renamed Post Toasties in 1907. C.W. Post was an astute businessman who believed that advertising and aggressive marketing were the keys to a successful enterprise. Within 10 years of its incorporation his Postum Cereal Company had more than $10 million in capital and was spending $400,000 a year on advertising, sums which were remarkable for the period. Although he vigorously opposed labor unions, his employees were the highest-paid in his industry and working conditions at the Post factory were exemplary. He even developed a factory town in which he sold homes to his workers at favorable rates.
Postum Cereal Company lost its founder in 1914. C. W. Post underwent an apparently successful appendectomy at the Mayo Clinic, but shortly after returning home to recuperate he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Post had for years suffered from bouts of illness and depression. While his death was without warning, his company was not left rudderless. His daughter, Marjorie Merriweather Post, had literally been raised in the business and was familiar with virtually every aspect of its operations. She assumed control of the now $20 million Postum Company and managed its affairs for the next eight years. While she did not oversee major product innovations, she did have a good feel for business and for promoting talented managers. In addition, her second marriage, in 1920, was to a man, E.F. Hutton, who was a major force on Wall Street.
Gross revenues in 1921 were $17.75 million. In 1922 Hutton took the newly incorporated Postum Cereal Company public by issuing 200,000 common shares. The 1920s was a period in which common stock was still considered highly speculative, and consequently the newly-issued shares carried a dividend at the rate of $5.00 per year.
Revenues in 1922 were essentially the same as in 1921, but in 1923 they were $22.25 million and a stock split, in the form of a 100% stock dividend, increased the authorized shares to 400,000. These shares also earned a $3.00 annual cash dividend, representing a 20% increase over the pre-split rate. In 1925, with revenues now at $27.4 million, the stock was split once again and the dividend was increased to $4.00 per new share.
It began late that year with the purchase of the Jell-O Company. Jell-O had been first produced in 1897 by Pearl B. Wait. His product was based on a patent that had been issued to Peter Cooper, the inventor and industrialist, in 1845, but which Cooper had never developed commercially. However, Wait was unsuccessful in marketing Jell-O and in 1899 he sold the rights to it for $450 to a neighbor, Orator Francis Woodward, who had founded the Genesee Pure Food Company in 1897. Genesee became the Jell-O Company in 1923, the same year it began marketing D-Zerta, a sugar-free gelatin, and a powdered mixture for making ice cream in the kitchen.
In 1926 Postum Cereal acquired Igleheart Brothers, Inc (established in 1856), the makers of Swans Down cake flour, and followed this with the purchase of the Minute Tapioca Company. "Tapioca Superlative" had been invented in 1894 by a Boston woman, Susan Stavers, who made it from tapioca flakes that she ran through her coffee grinder. Later that year she sold the rights to John Whitman, of Orange, Massachusetts, who changed its name to "Minute Tapioca." In 1908 he changed the name of his company to that of his product. The "Minute" brand would later become better known for a General Foods innovation introduced in 1949 known as Minute Rice, a brand of parboiled rice.
As a consequence of the Jell-O and Minute Tapioca acquisitions, Postum Cereal's revenues in 1926 jumped to $46.9 million. The number of shares stood at 1.375 million, including shares issued to acquire Jell-O and Minute Tapioca. The dividend was increased to $4.70 a year.
The acquisition spree continued in 1927 with the purchase of two similarly named confectionery companies, chocolate-maker Walter Baker (founded in 1765, making it the oldest component of the Postum constituent companies), and coconut-maker Franklin Baker, which had begun earlier in the 19th century as a flour broker but whose confectionery products dated from 1895. This was followed by the purchase of Log Cabin Products, the maker of Log Cabin Syrup (first produced in 1887), and of Richard Hellmann, Inc. (established in 1913), the producer of Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise. And late in the year Postum Cereal began selling its first coffee product, "Sanka," by obtaining U.S. marketing rights from Dr.Ludwig Roselius of Bremen, Germany. Roselius had developed the decaffeinated coffee in 1906 and began selling it in the U.S. in 1923.
Three more acquisitions followed in 1928. The most important was that of the Cheek-Neel Coffee Company. Its product, Maxwell House, dating from 1892, was a well-known brand in what was still a fragmented U.S. coffee market. Within a few years, however, it was to become the number one brand in America and would retain that position well into the 1980s. Also acquired during 1928 was the La France Manufacturing Company, a maker of starch and other laundry products (this being Postum's first venture into non-edibles), and the Calumet Baking Powder Company, the leading maker of this kitchen essential.
Financially, the year culminated on October 1 with the inclusion of Postum, Inc. in the newly reformulated Dow Jones Industrial Average of 30 common stocks. By year-end, revenues stood at $101 million and the dividend on the five million authorized shares was $5.00 per year, a twenty-five-fold increase since 1922.
It was Marjorie Merriweather Post who first became excited about the prospects for the frozen foods business. In 1926 she had put into port at Gloucester on her yacht, Sea Cloud, and was served a luncheon meal which, she learned to her amazement, had been frozen six months before. Despite her enthusiasm it took Post three years to convince General Foods' management to acquire the company. GF paid $10.75 million for a 51% interest and its partner, Goldman Sachs, paid $12.5 million for the other 49%. (Goldman sold its share back to General Foods in 1932, apparently at a slight loss.)
Shortly after the Birdseye acquisition General Foods began test-marketing an expanded line of frozen foods. But the company quickly realized that a packaging process alone would not be sufficient to effectively market frozen products in stores. In order to be sold, the packages had to be kept frozen while on display, so Birdseye engineers began development of a freezer cabinet designed specifically to hold frozen foods. The cabinet, which first appeared in 1934, required a great deal of space and electricity, which were not readily available in most grocery stores of the period. But for those stores which could accommodate them, the payback was immediate. Housewives quickly realized that keeping packages of frozen food in the icebox could mean fresher meals and fewer trips to the market.