Could General Mills Have Trademarked Circular Cereal?


If you go to any supermarket and take a stroll through the cereal aisle, you’ll see a bounty of O-shaped options. There’s generic supermarket brand O’s, Trader Joe’s O’s, Kosher for Passover Crunch-i O’s, 365 Organic Morning O’s, and of course the road-paver of them all, Cheerios. With all of these iterations of the original General Mills cereal, you would think that the company would have tried to trademark their design, putting a stop to all other versions of what is essentially their product. 

Invented in 1941 and originally called Cheerioats (until a competitor lawsuit demanded that they shorten the name to end all oat-based cereal confusion), Cheerios was the first oat-based cold cereal to hit the market. According to 75 Years of Innovation, Invention, Food & Fun, General Mills’ celebratory anniversary book, they tested more than 500 formulas and “more than 10 shapes and sizes ... before researchers came up with the perfect combination.” 

According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in Americathe original manufacturing process of gun-puffed rice was invented by Dr. Alexander P. Anderson in 1902. In the 1940s, a new version of the puffing gun was invented by General Mills' Mechanical Experimental Department engineer, Thomas James. On General Mills' blog, Susan Wakefield, a corporate archivist for the company, explains that much of General Mills’ success can be attributed to the puffing gun and its subsequent models, including the C-gun in the 1960s and E-gun in the 1980s. 

Yet according to the General Mills' archives department, even with this fancy technology, the company never tried to trademark the now-classic O shape. (Technically, trademark legislation was still in its very early stages when Cheerios first appeared, providing a solid argument for why nobody thought to immediately run to their lawyer.) 

But had they been invented after Congress passed the Lanham Act in 1946, would General Mills have had a case? 

In an email from Oliver Herzfeld, SVP and Chief Legal Officer of the brand licensing agency The Beanstalk Group, he explains that product shapes can be trademarked, but only if “the shape is not a functional feature of the underlying product” (according to Kath, a nutrition food blogger whose post on homemade toasted oat cereal was sponsored by General Mills, “they would have been fine without the hole!”) and if it “meets the requirements under the trademark law of distinctiveness.” Herzfeld broke that last bit down, saying that “historically, trademark protection was not granted to product shapes until the consuming public”—in this case, frequenters of the breakfast cereal aisle—“recognized the shape as indicating the source of the product.”

Compare the Cheerios shape to the classic Coke Contour Bottle, which was trademarked in 1977. The contour shape, also referred to as the hobbleskirt bottle, has no functional value (it doesn’t even make it easier to hold!) and is strongly associated with the Coca-Cola company, whereas the round Cheerio could be brought to you by the letter O, or by the long-gone inventor of the wheel. 

Simply put, Herzfeld doesn’t think they would have had a solid case for trademark protection. Which is a bummer, considering how awesome it would be if every cereal in the supermarket was a different shape. Or maybe there would just be fewer cereals. Either way, General Mills' decision, or lack thereof, to not trademark their now recognizable O’s is a win for us all. 

AFP, Getty Images
Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

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