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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

The long shelf life of Ry-Krisp

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Two men by a mixer, Ry-Krisp factory, 1949.

In 1904, immigrant baker Arvid Peterson gave a Swedish-styled cracker a modern American name and the country’s been eating Ry-Krisp ever since. Minneapolis has also been the one and only location where the product is made.

In its first years, this cracker required little advertising, because Scandinavian immigrants knew it as knäckebröd (“crisp bread”) from their home countries. In Sweden, such crackers were inexpensive and lasted well on the shelf. At the time, crackers were essentially competitive with more conventional breads because baked loaves were inconsistently made. Ry-Krisp originally came in large, flat, thin rounds with a hole in the center. This traditional shape was designed for storing the product on a pole or even a broomstick.

Peterson, his brother Erik, and their widowed mother arrived in America in 1893. They lived for several years in Boston. While there, Arvid learned baking skills, and then for two years he was a farmer in South Dakota. By 1904, the brothers had moved to Minneapolis. “Peterson Bros. Bakers” was at 2120-24 Lyndale Avenue South. Arvid and Erik lived just a few blocks away. It was common for bakers to live close to their shops.

The Ry-Krisp recipe and method are largely unchanged. Rye kernels are milled into flakes, and then combined with water and injections of air to create a crunchy texture. Except for optional flavors, the ingredients remain the same as when Peterson first made Ry-Krisp. The baking period is short.

As a cereal grain, rye offers unique health benefits. When Peterson sold his company to local investors in 1913, vitamins and nutrition were newly appreciated in America. New marketing strategies for the product said “Physicians recommend it” and that this “health bread” was a “corrective” for constipation. One ad claimed that the product “exercises the teeth.”

ry-krisp ad
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Magazine advertisement from Good Health magazine, July 1919,
published by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg.

Over the years, advertising and consumer interests shaped the appeal of this old-fashioned food. Some early health food enthusiasts mistakenly felt that “pure food” could ensure good breeding, or even racial purity. Many more sensible marketers recognized that the cracker’s vitamins, fiber content, and long shelf life were more important assets.

The product was associated with smart dieting. Several 1940s Ry-Krisp ads were drawn by popular cartoonists from the New Yorker magazine. The product was a sponsor of the 1940s radio shows of famed New York hostess Elsa Maxwell and of opera star Marion Talley.

Ry-Krisp ads or testimonials evolved over several decades. They appeared in professional nursing journals, immigrant newspapers, fishing guidebooks, and general-interest national magazines.

In 1926, the Ralston Purina Company of St. Louis bought Ry-Krisp but kept production in Minneapolis. Founded in 1902, this new owner was a successful partnership between an animal-feed and health-foods firm (Purina) and a breakfast food company (Ralston). There was no actual “founder” named Ralston. An eccentric professor named Webster Edgerly invented the name. He idealistically mixed food production with utopian philosophy. To Edgerly, “R.A.L.S.T.O.N.” stood for “Regime, Activity, Light, Strength, Temperation, Oxygen, Nature.”

After 1926, as one brand among many from a large company, Ry-Krisp benefited from broader advertising. Ralston also sold “Ralston 100% Whole Wheat Cereal,” whose celebrity spokesman was cowboy star Tom Mix. Ralston experimented with the shape of Ry-Krisp, eventually adopting the rectangular cracker it is known for.

In 1922, Ry-Krisp built a new plant at 824 6th Avenue S.E., where production remains into the twenty-first century. There was a convenient rail siding for national distribution, but trucks now ship the crackers all over the country. A few flavor innovations have appeared over time, including the unsuccessful pizza-flavored Ry-Krisp. However, except for its shape, Arvid Peterson would still recognize today’s product as equal to his original.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 06/18/2013 - 11:52 am.

    Interesting articles keep them coming

    I love the history articles whether it be inventors or companies. What a great use of Legacy Funds.

  2. Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 01/29/2015 - 08:25 pm.

    Scandinavian Hardtack

    Bought some recently. Couldn’t finish the package. Whatever the “health benefits” I couldn’t manage it. Looks and tastes much like crispy cardboard. Perhaps best belongs to “history.”

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