Saturday, January 18, 2014


We’ve been homebound quite a bit the past few weeks, due in no small part to the cold weather and to a stomach flu that has been exchanged between the younger members of my house. This week I thought I’d just try to dig up something interesting about a product I already have at home—Quaker Oats. But what is there really to learn about this iconic product most Americans already have sitting in their pantries? Quite a bit actually. Quaker Oats holds a royal warrant from Her Majesty the Queen as “Suppliers of Quaker Oat Products.”

I once lived a good part of a year in Philadelphia, so I have a better understanding of these mystic, peace-loving people than most Americans do. The Quakers, I mean—not Philadelphians. I’ve always understood—just as I assume you do—that Quakers founded this company. To write this entry I just needed to learn a little more about them.

The British Quaker website gives short shrift to the company history, instead focusing on the process of milling oats and the company’s commitment to renewable resources. In a word: Snoozeville. I gave up and tried the U.S. website, which offered quite a bit more detail. The American website shares that in 1877 Quaker Oats registered the very first U.S. trademark for breakfast cereal—a design featuring “a figure of a man in ‘Quaker garb.’” Then, surprisingly, it notes that owners Henry Seymour and William Heston are thought to have selected a Quaker to represent their product because it suggested honesty and good quality.

See the problem here? Seymour and Heston weren’t Quakers. Quaker Oats aren’t grown by Quakers. The company wasn’t formed by Friends. I don’t even know if Quakers like oatmeal. This is a sham, folks.

To get a little more of the back story, I consulted Arthur Marquette’s Brands, Trademarks and Good Will: The Story of the Quaker Oats Company. Marquette’s book is a fabulous history, not only of the Quaker Oats Company but of oat consumption in the United States in general. Prior to the late 1800s, oats weren’t considered people food by Americans; they were suitable only as horse food. Americans preferred big breakfasts heavy on meat, eggs, dairy and sugar. Quaker’s founders—not unlike Kellogg’s founders—sought to change the first meal of the day into one that was less expensive and less dependent on animal protein. Eating oatmeal for breakfast was especially popular among new Scotch and Irish immigrants who couldn’t afford the lavish spread so many others enjoyed. In concert with this rebranding of oatmeal as people food, the Quaker Oats Company was an aggressive advertiser, more so than many companies of the time period.

Marquette also provides a bit more detail about the decision to invent a Quaker connection for the brand. He writes:

“Heston was of Quaker descent, which may have motivated the trademark, but this is doubtful. More probably one of the partners, Henry Seymour, searching an encyclopedia for a virtuous identity that would instill buyer confidence, saw in the article on the Quaker sect exactly the connotation he desired for his steel-cut oats. Possibly his eye was on the large Quaker population in nearby Ohio towns and villages.”
I guess from reading this you could make the argument that Quaker Oats might still have some connection to the Quakers. Still, I wonder if Heston isn’t one of those people who simply claim they are Quakers because that sounds like a cool thing to be. Take Adam, for instance. When I told him I wanted to interview a Quaker for this article to find out if they’re as angry about the Quaker oat man as Native Americans are about the Washington Redskins, he reminded me that he considers himself to be of Quaker descent. He also pointed out that he went to the University of Pennsylvania, home of the Fighting Quakers. I’ll tell you what I just told him—you can’t just decide to be a Quaker sometimes. You’re either a Quaker all the time or you never are. You either go to a Friends’ meeting hall and sit in silence on Sunday mornings or you don’t.

As if Quaker impersonation weren’t bad enough, Quaker Oats has in recent years engaged in another sham. Notice any changes in the appearance of the man on the oat canister lately? You should. In 2012, the company revealed a tanner, leaner, younger-looking Quaker oat man who is a far cry from the portly, sagging gentleman who graced their packaging when I was growing up.

The company didn’t intend for the change to be noticeable; rather they envisioned it as a subtle rebranding effort. If oats are heart healthy, slimming, and good for your skin, the Quaker Oat Man wouldn’t be chubby, wrinkled, and old-looking, right? Thus the change in his appearance.

Princess Diana was no stranger to such a physical change. Soon after her marriage to Prince Charles, she started looking less like a schoolgirl and more like a glamorous new wife. In her 2006 biography Diana, Sarah Bradford recounts the new images of the princess of Wales on her Scottish honeymoon at the royal family’s Balmoral Castle:

“She was already transformed from the mousy girl of a few months previously; her hair was coloured blonde and with bare brown legs and tanned complexion she looked for the first time not just beautiful but glamorous.”
In a famous photo of Diana and Charles taken on this trip, he has just caught a fish in the river. The two posed together awkwardly, each taking on a different role. Bradford shares that Diana,

“gazing seductively at the press, her legs adopting a ballet position, draped a possessive arm around his shoulders. Charles looked stiff, nervous and worried, the dead salmon lying as a trophy at his feet.”
Diana’s transformation into a confident, sex symbol of a princess enthralled the British people instantly. At the same time, the marriage was almost instantly considered by both parties to be a mismatch. It just didn’t fit.

I couldn’t help feeling the same way as the tan, slim, younger-looking Quaker Oat Man gazed seductively at me from the side of the canister while I made oatmeal chocolate chip cookies last weekend. That religious charlatan should be hawking something else—men’s cologne, athletic shoes, chewing gum. Oatmeal just isn’t a good fit.

Where to Buy: Come on, you can buy it anywhere.