150 Years Of General Mills: A Look Back
General Mills, the food conglomerate behind Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Yoplait and dozens of established cereal brands, is celebrating its 150-year anniversary today.
But since its start—in 1866 as a single mill along the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis—production at General Mills has often innovated beyond food, particularly during the postwar decades.
Through a partnership with University of Minnesota professor James Ryan, the first black box (originally known as the “General Mills Flight Recorder”) was produced and sold by General Mills in 1953. However, the device, which is crucial for determining the causes of a plane crash, wasn’t an instant hit with airlines. It took years of lobbying to get airlines on board, but now no commercial airplane takes off without it.
General Mills’ postwar efforts continued into the 1960s with the creation of the first deep-sea submersible, dubbed ALVIN. The 23-foot long, three-passenger sub was the first of its kind with capabilities of transporting the vessel on-ship versus being towed. Across multiple decades (and even today), ALVIN has performed a number of remarkable tasks, such as locating a lost hydrogen bomb in the Mediterranean Sea and being the first to scout the wreck of the Titanic.
Even during World War II, General Mills more than just produced the U.S. Army’s K and C rations. It also built precision targeting technologies, including the jitterbug torpedo, an unusual weapon that would initially miss an enemy sea vessel to fool those on board, all before adjusting course (sometimes making a full U-turn) back to the target.
“Our mechanical division still makes a lot of the machines that produce our food items,” said General Mills spokesperson Mike Siemienas. Like many companies and individuals during wartime, Siemienas said the company’s mechanical division would often assist the country or other companies who asked for help. “Whether it was feeding the troops, helping the military or working with the University of Minnesota,” he said, “it’s something that goes back to our roots and the philanthropy we’ve done.”
At the time of the Space Race, General Mills developed a variety of space foods for NASA astronauts. The idea ultimately evolved into Space Food Sticks, a snack created for Pillsbury, which is noted today as a forerunner of energy bars.
From 1961 to 1969, General Mills acquired 37 companies predominately in nonfood industries, several of which were toymakers, such as Kerner (creator of the first line of Star Wars figures), Parker Brothers (known for board games Risk and Monopoly), Lionel Trains, and even Play-Doh. General Mills also developed the Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven, the Nerf ball, Paint-by-Number, and Care Bears.
“With all that we owned in the 1970s,” Siemienas said, “we were the largest toymaker in the world.”
The company also had some advertising “firsts,” as its pancake batter brand Bisquick created one of the first radio “soap operas” called Betty and Bob. General Mills sponsored the first televised commercial sports broadcast in 1939 and owned or sponsored shows like The Lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy and The Bullwinkle Show.
Today, the Golden Valley-based company has re-focused almost entirely toward food. After one-and-a-half centuries and a range of innovations, General Mills now stands as one of the world’s ten largest food companies with worldwide sales of $18.8 billion.