A full-throttle, life-relishing zest

What did you have for breakfast this morning? If, like a lot of Illinoisans, you consumed a bowl of cereal or a cup of coffee, you probably enjoyed a brand which got its start under an early 20th century Illinois businesswoman named Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Born in Springfield on March 15, 1887, Marjorie Merriweather Post inherited the Postum Cereal Company from her father at age 27 and proceeded to turn it into a global powerhouse. She had been involved in the company from an early age, one of the few women of her time to regularly participate in corporate board meetings.

Her father, Charles William “C.W.” Post was born and raised in Springfield, attending the local schools and spending two years at the Illinois Industrial University, which later became the University of Illinois. When Marjorie, the family’s only daughter, was born her parents lived in Springfield where he was a salesman and an inventor. Due to some health problems he moved the family to Battle Creek, Michigan, in the 1890s and began selling different brands of breakfast cereal (though some noted the similarities to a product already being sold by the Kellogg Brothers).

Young Marjorie expressed an interest in the small business so her father sought to teach her some business skills and the value of a dollar. But it was soon clear that she had a natural instinct for business. When C.W. Post died in 1914 Marjorie would show that she had what it took to succeed.

A story from her New York Times obituary reflects on her early toughness.

“While attending school in Battle Creek, she had to walk by a lumber yard that was a favorite hangout for town bullies who delighted in picking on little girls. One day she flattened one of them with a right to the stomach. She was never bothered again.”

When she took over the company it was already producing such household names as Grape Nuts and Post Toasties cereal, but the new boss felt the company could do more. As the economy boomed in the 1920s, Post aggressively went after other products on the store shelves, many of which are still there today. By the end of the decade her company’s corporate banner included items like Jell-O, Hellman’s Mayonnaise and Maxwell House coffee. The company soon became known as General Foods.

Educated at Mount Vernon Seminary and College in Washington DC, Post went on to become the school’s first alumna trustee. She was also an avid art collector, amassing such a collection of mostly French and Russian pieces that she purchased a mansion near Washington DC called Hillwood to hold them all.

Grape Nuts Advertisement - 1873 
Always on the lookout for new product ideas she stumbled across one which revolutionized America’s food industry. While sailing on her yacht near Massachusetts she came across the work of a local frozen foods pioneer named Clarence Birdseye. Birdseye had been unable to interest distributors in his process for freezing and preserving the seafood caught by New England fishers, but Post knew a good idea when she saw one. Soon General Foods acquired Birdseye’s General Seafood Corporation and introduced the concept of frozen meats and vegetables to shoppers across America. Thanks to Post, Birdseye is yet another name commonly found on store shelves throughout the country.

But if the product wasn’t enough, the actual shelves are also a General Foods innovation. It was quickly discovered that simply freezing the food would not be sufficient: the items had to stay frozen at the store in order to avoid spoilage while awaiting purchase. General Foods engineers came up with the first frozen food aisles in grocery stores in the 1930s; no easy creation in a time when electricity was not nearly as widely available as today.

When her husband, Joseph Davies, was named Ambassador to the Soviet Union by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, Post packed 14 freezers with 2000 pints of cream in order to be able to enjoy ice cream while overseas.

A socialite and philanthropist, Post’s charities included the American Red Cross. During World War I she helped to fund an Army hospital in Savenay, France. It became the largest such hospital on the Western Front by the end of the war in 1918. For her humanitarian contributions she was awarded the French Legion d’honneur. During the Great Depression she helped to run a Salvation Army soup kitchen in New York City which served 1000 people per day for six years.

She was also a major backer of the National Symphony Orchestra, which later seated her on its board of directors. During one board meeting in 1955 a suggestion was made that money be allocated to provide for free concerts for visiting high school students. Post left the room and called her financial advisor, then returned and announced that she would be personally donating the money which created the Music for Young America concerts.

Of her philanthropy Post once said, “I’m not the richest woman in the world. There are others better off than I am. The only difference is that I do more with mine. I put it to work.”

She gave many of her gifts anonymously. One of these, which was eventually traced back to her, was a $100,000 donation to the National Cultural Center in Washington DC. Today we know that facility as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

At the time of her death Marjorie Merriweather Post was among the wealthiest women in the United States.

Marjorie Merriweather Post at a presentation
of a Naval Reserve Pennant aboard her yacht Sea Cloud.
Post lived life to the fullest, owning several homes throughout the country (one of them was a compound in South Florida called Mar-a-Lago) and an enormous yacht named Sea Cloud which hosted its share of distinguished guests. It was known to host parties for as many as 400 people. Coming aboard for the first time Queen Maud of Norway remarked, “Why, you live like a queen, don’t you?”

She had what her biographer William Wright called “a full-throttle, life-relishing zest.”

A guest at one of her many parties is said to have remarked that, “she comes into a room and everyone else looks exhausted.”

Post was director of General Foods for more than 40 years, finally stepping down in 1958 at the age of 71, but remaining a principal stockholder for another seven years. After her death General Foods merged with Kraft to create Kraft General Foods, which itself later merged with Heinz and is now known as Kraft Heinz.

When Marjorie Merriweather Post died in 1973 she left her Hillwood estate to the Smithsonian, as well as many furnishings and her jewels, some of which remain on display there.

She is buried at Hillwood.