A Revolution In The Kitchen: A Further History Of Swans Down Flour [1926-1956]

Willard Private Donation Library

In May of this year I drove from my home in New Orleans to Evansville, Indiana to research the Igleheart Brothers Swans Down flour archives at the Willard Private Donation Library. As we know, Levi, William and Asa Igleheart built their first flour mill on the banks of the Wabash and Erie Canal in Evansville in the 19th century.

The city is ground zero for Swans Down flour historians.

I situated myself at a workstation as a research librarian surrounded me with a multitude of large ‘bankers’ boxes filled with the arcana and ephemera of one of the most important families in the history of the US gristmill industry.

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

Swans Down flour was established by the Igleheart brothers in 1856. In part one of my report I documented the early years of the brand concluding with the sale to industry giant Postum in 1926.

The news broke on March 20th, 1926. Igleheart Brothers of Indiana were selling their 70 year old Swans Down flour brand to the Postum Corporation of Battle Creek, Michigan. First quarter Wall Street reports issued shortly after the news stated that Postum showed net income for the quarter of $3,106,321 after expenses and taxes equal to $2.26 per share on 1,370,000 shares outstanding.¹

The Igleheart acquisition was not reflected in this report.

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

Barely two months passed before Igleheart Mills, under the aegis of Postum, made a substantial acquisition with the purchase of the Phoenix Milling company of Evansville. The purchase price was closely held but estimated at being in the million dollar range by industry experts.

J.S Prescott of New York City, Postum’s secretary and counsel, sat down at the negotiating table to hammer out the deal with Phoenix.

Postum could now easily produce 2200 barrels of Swans Down flour daily through their Evansville outlets.²

Things would get interesting when the financials for the second quarter of 1926 were released. Postum Cereal Company Inc. would state that they earned a net profit of $2,972,317, post-tax, for the period ending on June 30th.

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

Now let’s look at year over year: In 1925 during that same period Postum earned $1,093,644. The Igleheart/Swans Down flour acquisition is proving to be a sage move for the Michigan giant.³

[Takeaway: Postum substantially raised their quarterly earnings by purchasing Swans Down. They didn’t just buy the brand, they bought the mystique attached to the brand. Igleheart had carefully built an advertising campaign over decades to position Swans Down as a boutique ingredient with everyday pricing.]

Bear in mind that the Swans Down marque was affixed to a battery of products at that time: Instant Swans Down cake flour, regular Swans Down cake flour, Swans Down bread flour and Swans Down graham flour. Igleheart also produced sterilized bran.

For the first six months of 1926, Postum’s net profit was $6,078,638, [obviously Igleheart would only be factored in via second quarter due to spring acquisition] equal to $4.15 a share on 1,465,000 common shares issued versus $5,126,325 combined earnings of companies under the Postum umbrella in the same 1925 period.

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

The Igleheart/Swans Down purchase has now padded the company coffers by nearly a million dollars.⁴

By October 1926, Postum had $8,085,000 in working capital⁵

January 1, 1927, R.R Thomson, general superintendent of Postum cereal plant, has his jurisdiction extended to all Postum brands including Igleheart Bros in Evansville.⁶ This would mark the first time a person not named Igleheart was in charge of Swans Down production in the brothers’ Evansville home.

One year after Postum’s purchase of Igleheart, Colby M. Chester, the company’s president ventured to Evansville to give a speech to the Igleheart workforce. Chester is something of a legend in the history of Postum as his 11 year tenure saw the company grow in revenue from a modest $25 million in 1924 to $120 million by 1935.

Chester was an acquisition man. In addition to Igleheart the captain rammed through purchases of the Jello Company, Minute Tapioca, as well as Cheek-Neal [makers of Maxwell House Coffee,] the Certo Corporation, Frosted Foods Company and finally the Dunlop Milling Company.

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

The Igleheart/Swans Down purchase meant one thing for the Evansville milling concern: growth. By spring of 1927 the company was bursting at the seams and announced plans to build a brand new three story superstructure of concrete and steel to serve as an additional cake flour-packing house. A capital outlay of $175,000 was the estimated cost.⁷

Flush with capital and in the mood for more expansion, Postum purchased the Franklin Baker Company, Hoboken, New Jersey; and Diehl-Anderson Coconut Company, Philippines, in August of 1927. Both of these purchases would prove salient in the future development of Swans Down Flour products.⁸

A sifting screen used in the manufacture of Swans Down flour. Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

[Takeaway: Postum’s brain trust was always a step ahead of the competition. Did the concern have a pressing need for a coconut company? Not at present but as the years went by the products these two companies produced would be integrated into the mother company’s other goods to good effect.]

In December 1927 the Igleheart family was greatly diminished by the passing of Addison Igleheart, favored son, and inventor of Swans Down Flour. It cannot be stated more firmly: In that modern world of flour the man had no equal. It was his Swans Down creation that catapulted the Iglehearts into national prominence and allowed the family to create a dynastic company that simply had no peer during this era.⁹ Further, it was Addison that led the firm’s charge into national media advertising [June 1898, Lady’s Home Journal] at a time when few small businesses had that level of marketing savvy.

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

As 1927 drew to a close, financial newspaper Barron’s Weekly recapped Postum’s rapid growth from 1925 til the current year’s end. Igleheart’s was one of seven companies Postum had brought into the fold leading to revenue growing from some $27 million to over $80 million in just a two year span.¹⁰

At the dawn of 1928 the Postum Cereal company officially became known as simply the Postum Company to better reflect the concern’s growing diversity of businesses under their umbrella.¹¹

[Takeaway: If one thought the Igleheart Brothers may have relaxed a bit whilst operating under the Postum Company aegis that person would have been wrong. Their Evansville, Indiana Swans Down industry saw many improvements with substantial capital outlay to implement them. While the company had a patina of age the men running it were still filled with the vigor of young entrepreneurs. The Iglehearts’ acumen had not diminished.]

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

As modernity beckoned, two of the Igleheart grist mills were converted to run exclusively on electricity. While all plants in the Igleheart system operated at 24 hours per day. 310 days per year.¹² No mean feat in 1928.

At the behest of the Iglehearts, 52 wheat collection stations were scattered about southern Indiana and southern Illinois. Soft winter wheat was the spine of the Swans Down brand and the farmers in the region were well known for producing a quality that was revered by gristmill men.

A dozen massive concrete silos were freshly erected in Evansville to be able to hold some 1.5 million bushels of wheat at once. A new three story, 15,000 sf plant was constructed to triple the previous volume of Swans Down flour packing. Production grew by 15% over the previous year.¹³

Swans Down flour contributed greatly to their parent company’s weal over the year 1928 leading to Postum reporting revenue in excess of $130 million. Profit exceeded $18 million.¹⁴

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

Austin Igleheart, general manager of the Evansville Swans Down plant was soon recognized by Postum for his sharp wits, and awarded the vice presidency of the mothership. A relocation to New York City was effected.

Igleheart had made his reputation at father John’s company by inventing Instant Swans Down Flour. Nephew of the famed Addison, Austin was instrumental in the hiring of Helen Farquhar, a respected cook and home economics guru who turned the Igleheart test kitchen into a huge success.¹⁵

Edgar Igleheart took over the general manager position in southern Indiana.¹⁶

By 1929 Postum was once more in acquisition mode and purchased Clarence Birdseye’s General Foods Company. It was time for a name change. Postum, with 19 manufacturing subsidiaries, became General Foods Corporation in May of that year.

In September of 1930 the Swans Down family was once again left forlorn with the passing of Leslie Igleheart, 82, who had captained the company for some 22 years. His presidency ended when Postum purchased the concern in 1926.

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

In 1931 wheat growers and county agents organized the Southwestern Indiana Wheat Improvement Association sponsored by an Igleheart Bros/General Foods Fellowship in association with Purdue University.

[Takeway: After 70 plus years it would have been easy for the Iglehearts to simply coast along in their chosen industry. Wheat production had been a feature of Indiana farm life for over a century at this point, and employed hundreds of men who chose the staple as a field of endeavor. Still clear-eyed and looking to the future, the Iglehearts recognized the value of the Swans Down brand and knew that if it was to stay relevant they had to stay a step ahead of the competition. How better to accomplish this than to form a partnership with the leading university of the day, Purdue, and tap into that brain trust? Careful, sober and efficient management carried the day.]

Igleheart Brothers grain storage silos. 1931. Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library.

In June of 1931 General Foods opened the first Swans Down cake flour plant outside the state of Indiana in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Soon after this move the Swans Down advertisements of the day began reflecting Canadian provincialism touting ‘Made in Canada’ from ‘Canadian Wheat.’

In early 1933 Swans Down biscuit mix was introduced in select markets. Ever the shrewd marketers, General Foods posited the mix as a great value with ads of the day trumpeting cost at just a nickel per dozen biscuits.This was certainly a smart angle as the US was at the height of the Great Depression and nearly 25% of the nation’s workforce was unemployed.

It’s April 1935, let’s look at the Igleheart Company state of affairs: Between 450 and 500 people are employed at plants and businesses located in Evansville and Vincennes, Indiana; Memphis and Clarksville, Tennessee; Jacksonville, Florida; and Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Over its 80 year history Igleheart has become known as a place suitable for long-term employment.

[Takeaway: A satisfied and well-compensated workforce is crucial to the employer’s bottom line. To wit: In the early 30s, Igleheart introduced a beneficial employee pension plan providing a retirement at 65 for men and 60 for women. Upon employees’ death the package is shifted to their beneficiaries. Should the employee quit the company prior to retirement age all accrued benefits are given upon their leave.]

The plants indigenous to Indiana are able to produce 18,000 bushels of wheat per day.

Distribution warehouses are located in Athens, Georgia and Spartansburg, South Carolina. There are 50 plus fully-functioning grain elevators dotted across southern Indiana. At the 10 year mark the Igleheart alliance with General Foods may be adjudged as advantageous for both companies.

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library.

Amidst this growth and development of the Swans Down marque as a prestige brand, Austin Igleheart was promoted to president of General Food Sales Company.

1936 dawned with a far-ranging decision issued by the US Supreme Court. The much-maligned Agriculture Adjustment Act, wherein farmers were subsidized to reduce their crop output, was struck down by the High Court. Retailers immediately responded with favor and Swans Down flour saw a substantial price cut for consumers.¹⁷

By January 1938, shoppers in 38 countries across the globe could walk into their local market and purchase Swans Down flour.¹⁸ What began as a mom and pop company in small town Indiana had morphed into an international giant.

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library.

Swans Down was now a fully-matured brand with a substantial heft amongst consumers. Igleheart/General Foods recognized the value of the marque and began rolling out new baking products with the Swans Down name attached. 1943 saw both Swans Down corn muffin mix as well as Swans Down bran muffin mix hit grocery store shelves.

It would be 1946 before a ‘new’ Swans Down product was brought to market. Swans Down Self Rising Cake flour was issued in fall of that year and General Foods wasted no time putting their ad dollars to work in a serious campaign that blanketed the Northeast. I put new in parentheses as this product was first brought to consumers in the early 20s, removed, and brought back after a 25 year absence. Intra-company murmurs had it that the ancillary ingredients of the day in the early 20s were simply not of the calibre that the Iglehearts demanded for all their products.

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library.

A year later the food scientists at General Foods had completed perfecting another formula and Swans Down Gingerbread Mix was brought to market in late 1947. A lot of work went into any new product that had the Swans Down brand attached to it. Before Swans Down Instant Cake Mix could be brought to grocer’s shelves a million dollars was spent on development and over 20,000 cakes were baked in the test kitchen.

After the new Swans Down product is released the work has just begun. 30,000 cakes are baked per annum and some 85,000 analytical tests are performed each and every year. Quality control is paramount and a production team works around the clock to ensure the consistency of the Swans Down brand.

Image courtesy Daily Review. Decatur, Illinois.

[Takeaway: This is the power of a large company like General Foods. Igleheart, as a subsidiary, can concentrate on developing new foods based on mainstay Swans Down. General Foods financial wherewithal is so great that the Indiana division can maintain a focus on creating new products with their flour as the backbone.]

Summer 1949, Swans Down Devil Food Mix becomes available to the baking public.

For the fiscal year ending in March 1952 General Foods reported revenue of $632,544,531. This was the highest sales in company history. The new products mentioned earlier led to over $76 million in enhanced revenue brought into the company coffers since 1945. At the 25 year mark, the Igleheart/Swans Down purchase is looking better than ever.¹⁹

Winter 1952, Swans Down Angel Food Mix rollout is a big success but there are storm clouds on the horizon.

In October 1954, after 26 years of service at General Foods, Austin Igleheart has decided to retire. The old Evansville regular had steadily climbed up the ladder of his family’s flour company til at the 16 year mark he ascended to the upper ranks of the Swans Down parent.

Possibly apocryphal. It nearly sounds too fantastic to believe. Courtesy Evansville Journal. December 30, 1931

As we look back on the multitude of Iglehearts who toiled in the Swans Down business. Austin was a singular talent. He held sway over some 20,000 employees and over 60,000 stockholders paid close attention to his business decisions.²⁰

Austin Igleheart’s advertising, sales, and promotion activities were said to be responsible for Swans Down’s success in the 1920s.

On the heels of Igleheart’s retirement news broke out of General Foods corporate offices that the Swans Down line of specialty foods was being folded within the parent company’s Associated Products division [Jell-O, pie fillings etc]. A spokesman noted this was done to take advantage of joint marketing opportunities.

Interestingly, this may have created a bit of turmoil in Evansville as General Foods saw fit to run a ‘soothing’ advertisement locally just a month later. It’s here:

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

The competitive nature of cake mix pricing led, perhaps inevitably, to a pricing war in July 1955 with Swans Down waging battle vs their competitors General Mills, Pillsbury Mills and Duncan Hines. During the price war the price of a 24 box case plummeted from $6.85 to $1.14. Swans Down three rivals waved the white flag of surrender first leaving the Evansville brand last man standing.’

January 1956, Swans Down adds Butterscotch Cake Mix to their product line and through a vigorous ad campaign reminds consumers the Evansville company invented cake flour in 1896; invented cake mixes in 1919, and invented Angel Food Cake Mix in 1950.

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

Just a few months later we find national media drawing attention to Igleheart Brothers marking a full century of operation [est. 1856]. Levi Jr, William and Asa’s small 10 barrel gristmill on the banks of the Erie Canal proved to be a sort of Mesopotamia in the wheat flour industry.

Never losing sight of their roots the Iglehearts, even in 1956, still used local firm Keller-Crescent for all their company’s printed materials. A relationship that had begun in 1885 was still revered and maintained.

And that prescient forming of the Southwestern Indiana Wheat Improvement Association in 1931? It improved the livelihoods of some 5500 wheat growing farm families in Indiana to the tune of $2.85 million in increased revenue year over year for for their overall operations.²¹

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

At the 100 year mark it must be noted that in spite of the sale to Postum the Iglehearts still contributed $14 million annually to the Evansville region economy via grain purchases, sales and payroll.

When General Foods annual report was issued in 1956, President Charles G. Mortimer emphasized the moneys paid to the company’s workers. $112,900,000 in wages and salaries was paid out by the Michigan behemoth while net sales stood at $931,100,000 – a substantial increase over the 1955 report. Net earnings of 39,000,000 marked an all time company record. Expansion of the Swans Down cake mix line was duly noted as having good effect on the company’s financials.²² As a sign of the times Instant Sanka Coffee was also mentioned in the report.

As a coup de grace for the year marking 100 years of operation, Swans Down would release a third new product: Instant Swans Down Lemon Flake Cake Mix.

Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

Research portal

  • Igleheart Brothers Swans Down flour archives at the Willard Private Donation Library
  • Wheat Production in Indiana. Alfred Theodor Wiancko, Purdue University. Agricultural Experiment Station, Clifford Elroy Skiver · 1938
  • The Book of Wheat: An Economic History and Practical Manual of the Wheat Industry.Peter Tracy Dondlinger · 2013
  • Changes in Wheat Production in the United States, 1607-1960. Henry Adolf Knopf
  • The Marketing of Wheat in the United States. Lester Glenn Ruch · 1920
  • Indiana Crops and Livestock. Purdue University. Agricultural Experiment Station · 1925
  • Spring Small Grains in Indiana. Alfred Theodor Wiancko, Clinton Otis Cramer · 1919
  • One Hundred and Fifty Years of Indiana Agriculture. Dave O. Thompson, William L. Madigan · 1966
  • Geography of Wheat Prices: Summary of Conditions Affecting Farm Prices of Wheat in Different Parts of the United States. Louis B. Zapoleon · 1918
  • The Commercial and Financial Chronicle. Volume 122. 1926
  • Image courtesy Willard Private Donation Library

    Newspaper resources
    1. Oakland Tribune. April 13th, 1926
    2. Evansville Courier and Press. May 28th, 1926
    3. Portland Press Herald. June 7th, 1926
    4. Cincinnati Inquirer. July 21st, 1926
    5. Portland Evening Express. October 19th, 1926
    6. Battle Creek Enquirer. December 17th, 1926
    7. Evansville Journal. April 25th, 1927
    8. Evansville Press. August 12th, 1927
    8.5 https://www.franklinbaker.com/our-company/history/
    9. Evansville Press. December 26th, 1927
    10. Des Moines Register. December 27th, 1927
    11. Battle Creek Enquirer. January 2, 1928
    12. Evansville Courier and Press. April 29th, 1928
    13. Evansville Courier and Press. March 31st. 1929
    14. Battle Creek Enquirer. January 1, 1929
    14.5 Battle Creek Enquirer. February 14, 1929
    15. The Indianapolis Star. August 22, 1935
    16. Evansville Courier and Press. April 21, 1929
    17. Lead Daily Call. January 9, 1936
    18. Evansville Courier and Press. January 30, 1938
    19. Princeton Daily Clarion. July 3, 1952
    20. Evansville Courier and Press. Nov 4, 1954
    21. Evansville Press. April 3, 1956
    22. Battle Creek Enquirer. June 18, 1956

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *