The First Wheaties Box Is Unrecognizable (And Didn't Feature An Athlete)

If you were to travel 100 years into the past, the world would look like an entirely different place, but you could at least begin your day in a familiar way with the Breakfast of Champions. Yes, Wheaties were around way back then as the product was created in 1921. If you're wondering what early 20th-century athlete graced the front of that box (Babe Ruth was having a pretty awesome season that year), the disappointing answer is none of them.

The box was actually a rather boring affair, khaki-colored with a grainy-looking bowl of cereal on the front. It also boasted a somewhat puzzling slogan: "Eventually ... Why Not Now?" Umm, was that what passed for marketing buzzwords in the previous century? Apparently so. A General Mills representative tells MegaMenu that this slogan dates to 1907 when it was used to advertise Gold Medal Flour, explaining: "The idea was that people would eventually try Gold Medal Flour and find out it was the best, so why wait to try it?" It must have worked since it stayed on the flour bags up through the 1950s. The slogan also had quite an impact on popular culture, early 20th century-style, as it occasionally popped up on the funny pages (as pre-digital comics were known) and was even referenced in church sermons.

How Wheaties came to be General Mills' first cereal

Like many other foods — popsicles, chimichangas, and toasted ravioli, to name but a few — Wheaties were invented by accident. The cereal was created, or so the story goes, when somebody spilled gruel on a hot stove and saw it harden into a flaky form that looked far more appealing than a bowl of boiled mush. The Washburn Crosby Company, which had only produced flour up to that time, decided that crispy gruel flakes would be their entry into the ready-to-eat cereal market. Of course, they came up with a snappier name before trying to market the stuff.

As you can see from the first Wheaties box, the cereal was originally released as a Washburn-Crosby product. That's why it shares the same slogan as Gold Medal Flour. In 1928, though, Washburn-Crosby merged with four more flour mills to create the modern-day behemoth General Mills. While Wheaties remained the flagship (okay, only) General Mills cereal for the first few years, by the 1930s it was joined by a proto-Chex cereal (then known by the name of Shredded Ralston) and the following decade by Cheerioats (later rechristened Cheerios).

Wheaties has long been a sports-focused brand

Wheaties first coined its "Breakfast of Champions" slogan in 1933, something a General Mills representative says was meant to point up the cereal's nutritious, wholesome, and energizing properties. Not only did Wheaties adopt this sports-centric slogan, but it also signed on as a sponsor for baseball game radio broadcasts. (Radio was still a big deal back then since the first ballgame wasn't shown on TV until 1939.) In fact, as Augsburg University professor Michael J. Lansing tells Smithsonian Magazine, the brand was instrumental in convincing MLB to broadcast those games in the first place.

The first athlete pictured on a Wheaties box — a milestone that took place in 1934 — was Lou Gehrig, baseball's "Iron Horse." Sadly, just five years after being crowned the inaugural Wheaties champion, Gehrig was forced to retire due to the disease that now bears his name. From that point onwards, though, Wheaties boxes would feature numerous other athletes as well as a few pioneering pilots (apparently flying was seen as a sport back in the early days of aviation). Their photos, however, were relegated to the back of the box for the first two decades. In 1956, the very first athlete to be pictured on the front of the box was Olympian Bob Richards. While his name isn't a household word these days, this theology professor-turned-pole vaulter managed the rare feat of earning medals (two gold, one bronze) in three different Olympic Games.

Wheaties boxes represent a wide range of athletes

Once Wheaties took on the identity as the official cereal of sports stars, it never looked back. "As a brand," a General Mills representative tells MegaMenu, "we have loved having the opportunity to celebrate and spotlight some of the best in their field." Needless to say, the playing fields they choose to focus on have varied over the past 90+ years, but for the most part, the Wheaties brand has been in the vanguard of trends. In 1935, it featured pioneering female athlete Babe Didrikson, while by 1952 it honored Roy Campanella, the first biracial one. 1999 saw the inclusion of sports entertainer Stone Cold Steve Austin, the only pro wrestler ever to be so honored, while in 2012 there was even a box showcasing 9-year-old Samantha Gordon, the star of her pee wee football team.

One possible omission from the Wheaties Hall of Fame was corrected by popular request: Greg Louganis, who won all of the diving gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, suspected that he'd been left off Wheaties' list because, as an LGBTQ athlete, the brand may not have felt that he projected the wholesome image it was striving for. After a petition garnered over 43,000 signatures, though, Wheaties agreed to give Louganis his flowers (and his box cover) in 2016. The GM rep assures us that the brand "continues to focus on partnering with athletes who embody what it means to be a champion both within and outside of sports."