NYPL Exhibitions

Bread and Sandwiches

Until well into the 20th century, lunch at home for many New Yorkers invariably centered on bread, though only affluent homemakers could afford the fuel, quantities of flour, and time needed to bake regularly. Everyone else bought bread, sometimes two or three loaves a day. Neighborhood bakeries turned out black bread, rye bread, challah, flatbread, and countless other varieties that reminded newcomers of home. The most popular, however, was the puffy, white, factory-produced bread that everybody called “American.”

The most famous of the factory loaves was Wonder Bread, first produced in Indianapolis in 1921 and later in New York City by the Continental Baking Company. Originally it was sold unsliced, like all factory bread, but in 1930 new machinery made it possible for Continental to market Wonder Bread sliced and wrapped—the pure white  loaf that would define culinary America for generations

Nineteenth and early 20th-century cookbooks and magazines gave highly specific advice about lunchtime sandwich making. For ladies and children, the bread was supposed to be sliced very thinly and the crusts removed. For workers, thick slices with crusts were deemed more appropriate. But with the arrival of perfectly sliced factory loaves, homemakers gladly used the same bread for everyone, and a century’s worth of social distinctions among sandwiches disappeared.