The Nation’s First Businesswoman Dynamo
By Tom Morrow
It’s hard to determine whether Marjorie Merriweather Post was one of America’s first businesswoman dynamo or one of the nation’s largest female philanthropist. The first begat the latter – nonetheless she was truly outstanding.
She was the daughter of breakfast cereal mogul Charles William “C. W.” Post. Born March 15, 1887, Marjorie Post took up the company’s leadership in 1914, when her father passed at age of 59. Marjorie and her father worked side-by-side. Together they were American pioneers in manufacturing corn flakes, (Post Toasties), rivaling the Kellogg brothers’ breakfast food company down the street in Battle Creek, Michigan.
The Post company became a pioneer in the prepared-food industry. When she inherited the company, Marjorie became the innovator and developer of what turned into General Foods, one of the world’s largest business empires.
In 1895, C. W. Post founded his company after attending the Kellogg health clinic. Post was inspired by John H. Kellogg’s health diet. After investing $78, Post set up operations in a barn in Battle Creek, developing his own breakfast recipe producing “Grape Nut Flakes.” His next product was “Postum,” a breakfast beverage alternative to coffee made from wheat and molasses. The first Post cereal was Grape-Nuts developed in 1897. In 1904 he began producing corn flakes and in 1908 he renamed the product “Post Toasties.”
In 1924, when C.W. died from appendicitis, his firm was known as the “Postum Cereal Company.” Marjorie became the wealthiest woman in the nation, inheriting $20 million (equivalent to $526 million in today’s dollars.) In 1929. Following several food corporations she renamed the company “General Foods.” Later, along with her second husband, financier E.F. Hutton, Marjorie began expanding the business and acquiring other American food companies such as Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Jell-O, Baker’s Chocolate, Maxwell House Coffee and many other well-known brands. While taking a voyage on her private yacht, she came across the revolutionary innovations of Clarence Birdseye, who had developed a new way of preserving food by freezing. Post foresaw the future advantages of frozen food and bought Birdseye’s company which eventually became the leading producer in its category.
She led the General Foods conglomerate to the point in 1985, Marjorie sold General Foods to the Philip Morris Companies for $5.6 billion, the largest private non-oil acquisition to that time.
Marjorie became a leading socialite and philanthropist using much of her fortune to collect art which is now on display at Hillwood, the museum, formally her estate in Washington, D.C. Post also was known for her luxurious home mansion, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, Florida, now the home of former President Donald Trump.
During World War I in 1917, Marjorie funded a U.S. Army hospital in France. Starting in 1929 and throughout the Great Depression, she financed and personally supervised a Salvation Army feeding station in New York. She also donated the cost of the Boy Scouts of America headquarters in Washington, D.C. In 1971, she was among the first three recipients of the “Silver Fawn Award,” presented by the Scout organization. The 425-acre Lake Merriweather at Goshen Scout Reservation in Goshen, Virginia, is named in her honor.
Among her many philanthropic gifts, she donated $100,000 to the National Cultural Center in Washington D.C., which today is known as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In 1955, she contributed $100,000 to the National Symphony for free concerts that led to the beginning of the “Music for Young America” concerts. The Merriweather Post Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue in Columbia, Maryland, is named for her.
Some of Post’s personal jewelry is historic and legendary. She bequeathed the jewels to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., which is now on display. Among the collection is the Napoleon Diamond Necklace and the Marie Louise Diadem, a 275-ct (55 g) diamond-and-turquoise necklace and tiara that Napoleon I gave to his second wife, Empress Marie Louise. Also a pair of diamond earring weighing 14 caret and 20 caret, once belonging to Marie Antoinette; the Blue Heart Diamond, a 30.82-caret heart-shaped blue diamond ring; and an emerald-diamond necklace and ring, once belonging to Mexican emperor Maximilian.
Marjorie Merriweather Post died Sept. 12, 1973 at the age of 86. Add up all of the company brands she acquired, developed and owned out of the American daily life there would be left a big domestic hole. She died as one of America’s most-successful and fascination business persons. She didn’t just inherit, she built an American dynasty.