By Michael J. Lansing
Dakota people call it Owámniyomni. For centuries, they envisioned the Mississippi River’s largest waterfall as a sacred place. The fifty-foot drop harbors an intense spiritual energy. In the 1820s, the arrival of the United States government—in the guise of white soldiers—gave rise to a new understanding of the falls they called St. Anthony. New Englanders, in particular, recognized the kinetic possibilities of falling water. Just as their parents converted the rocky rivers of Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire into sources of industrial power, these men saw immense mechanical potential at St. Anthony Falls. With it, they envisioned processing raw materials into saleable goods and building a great city.
Settlers soon transformed the river’s energy into power. Disputes over water rights defined early efforts to harness it. Constructing millraces and canals in the soft sandstone substrate proved easy, but dangerous. A bungled 1869 attempt to harness more energy almost destroyed St. Anthony Falls. Only federal intervention preserved the falls and the future of the new city of Minneapolis. That intervention ensured the consolidation of control over the river’s energy. Thereafter, a complex system of canals and millraces spread power generation beyond the falls’ immediate proximity.
Initially, that power made lumber from timber. Quickly exhausting nearby forests, millers soon turned to flour milling. But milling technology demanded soft wheat strains that could not be grown on the converted grasslands that made up Minneapolis’s Northern Plains hinterland. The climate limited cultivation to hard wheats. Separating the bran and germ from the carbohydrate-rich endosperm of hard wheats required new machines. Millers used espionage to develop novel technologies. Detaching starches from the rest of the kernel in recalcitrant hard wheats also produced a higher gluten content flour that resulted in better bread. Most importantly, the emergent mills in Minneapolis—which eventually grew to become large food corporations such as Pillsbury, General Mills, and Cargill—helped create nutrition capitalism, a political economy that defines the way we understand, make, and eat food, and even today animates food production and consumption in the United States.
In the mills themselves, water-driven turbines elevated wheat kernels to multi-story heights. Gravity and moving air provided further kinetic energy. The kernels fell back to ground level through separators and chutes that used moving air to separate milled grain fragments. Finally, fruits of the field and finished flours alike found their way to and from St. Anthony Falls via coal-powered railroads.
Together, these manipulated energies made the calories embodied in wheat kernels accessible to millions. Born of sun and soil as well as human, mechanical, and animal labor, wheat seeds provided power for people only after careful processing. Separating the bran and germ from the endosperm with never-before-seen efficiency at a never-before-seen scale, the white flour produced at St. Anthony Falls provided the world’s first industrially-produced grain-based carbohydrates. Milled locally for centuries, flour made at an industrial scale required cheap energy, an expansive agricultural hinterland, large numbers of wage workers, a grain variety matched to milling technology, large factories, and integration into transportation networks. By the 1880s, Minneapolis sported all six.
Sold for profit, the power to energize humans rendered millers themselves especially powerful. Minneapolis depended on the milling industry, and its top producers created many of the city’s cultural and social institutions. They offered employment, built mansions, and guided municipal politics. They also rearranged the upper reaches of the Mississippi’s watershed to regulate the river’s seasonal variations. This involved pushing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a system of dams in northern Minnesota over the protests of sovereign Ojibwe nations desperate to protect sacred wild rice habitat.
Industrially-produced carbohydrates made from grain sit at the center of the story of nutrition capitalism. Food companies based in Minneapolis figured prominently in the invention and propagation of both. As one of the three sectors of the nation’s emergent food industry—alongside meat-packing and preserved foods—white flour provided the primary source of carbohydrates for an industrializing nation. In the 1890s, the federal government sponsored nutrition research to foster public health and farm economies. For-profit food makers needed nourishing food to ensure sales. Nutrition scientists hoped to reshape eating habits. The state wanted healthy citizens. Together, they defined food’s healthfulness by reducing it to its chemical constituents while coupling public health and profitability. Scientists explored and defined the nature of carbohydrates, as well as how they interacted with human bodies. Working in the newly christened field of nutrition, they studied food and physiology closely.
Breaking food down into its constituent chemicals, nutrition became the dominant way to envision sustenance. Measuring food values via the calorie—a method popularized by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) chemist Wilbur Atwater in the 1890s—scientists focused on illuminating the relationship between diet and health. Even as it became the center of the nation’s grain-based carbohydrate industry, Minneapolis positioned itself to attract USDA monies to study those carbohydrates. Backed by the city’s millers, University of Minnesota agricultural extension station chemist Harry Snyder published the first studies on bread and wheat nutrition in the early 1900s. His findings—often drawing from work done in Washburn-Crosby’s (later General Mills) testing rooms—suggested that industrial white flour provided an efficient and nutritious source of energy. These scientific understandings of food value conflated economy and biochemistry. The resulting overlap between nutrition and for-profit food making—nutrition capitalism—validated white flour as a healthy food even as it ensured healthy markets and profits for Minneapolis-based companies.
Buoyed by nutrition science, the millers engaged in intense marketing campaigns. They advertised their product—stripped of bran and germ and bleached white—as especially pure. Its purity insured long-sought shelf stability. It also fed visions of racial hierarchy that prized whiteness. This material and discursive achievement helped them extend their sales and distribution networks across the continent. By the early 1900s, they reached across oceans. Consumers of means in Europe and Latin America chose Minneapolis-made white flours. Bread baked with white flour, served at nearly every meal, came to dominate eaters’ plates as a healthy source of food energy. On the eve of World War I, North Americans consumed almost 40% of their daily calories as white bread.
Nutrition capitalism—the relationship between businesses, scientists, and the state—survived depression and war and matured in the late twentieth-century. Growing in complexity, it proved especially durable. Today, it promises bright futures but instead threatens public health, wreaks ecological havoc, and promotes economic inequality. The climate crisis renders its complexity a weakness rather than a strength.
Two Twin Cities-based companies still loom large in global food systems and sustain nutrition capitalism. General Mills—now deeply committed to organic products—remains the nation’s biggest maker of packaged foods. Cargill stands out as the world’s largest privately-held company with a presence in over seventy countries. Ultimately, the history of Minneapolis reveals the nature of capitalist food making and eating.
Michael J. Lansing is associate professor of history at Augsburg University and author of Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics (University of Chicago Press, 2015). His current book project is Enriched: Industrial Carbohydrates and the Rise of Nutrition Capitalism (under contract, University of Chicago Press).
Featured image (at top): John Vachon, “Packing Flour, Pillsbury Mills, Minneapolis, Minnesota,” Sept. 1939, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.