The term sandwich bread (loaf) started circulating in the United States during the 1930s. It followed a revolution in the manner the product was presented to customers, no longer homemade but mass produced. After a decade of trial and error, the bread slicing machine was introduced and soon widely used. The sandwich was about to conquer the American and European markets. Grabbing a sandwich came to symbolize the rush of an urban society.
Since the 1840s, Iowa attracted large numbers of German immigrants who settled in every county across the state. When Otto von Bismarck became Chancellor of Prussia, he forced other German states to unite in a single nation under Kaiser Wilhelm I during the 1860s. In order to achieve his goal, Bismarck began conscripting young men into the army, giving further impetus to mass emigration to the United States.
The Germans who settled in Iowa were both farmers and city dwellers (by 1920 half of all Iowa farmers were of German descent). The city of Davenport was particularly well known for its large German population (today, the city is home to the German American Heritage Center & Museum). During the 1850s, thirteen different German-language newspapers in Iowa reflected the state’s immigrant identity.
Claus Rohwedder was one of those immigrants who settled in Davenport. According to the Dictionary of American Family Names Rohwedder is a North-German nickname for a moody or cantankerous man (derived from Middle Low German roh “rough or raw” and weder “weather”). Claus married Elizabeth Margaret Jannssen in October 1869. Otto Frederick Rohwedder was born on July 7, 1880. He grew up in Davenport, attended school there, and was apprenticed to a jeweler.
Rohwedder started his career in that profession and ran three stores in St Joseph, Missouri. He applied his precision work with watches and jewelry to design and develop functional household machines. Obsessed by the idea that would be able to construct a bread slicing machine, he sold his shops to fund further research.
In 1917 a fire damaged the workshop and destroyed his prototype and blueprints which set him back several years in his quest to offer the bread slicer to the market. He also faced opposition from suspicious bakers who rejected the idea of factory-sliced loaves as obnoxious and unworkable (bread would quickly go stale or fall apart). In spite of these obstacles, Otto Frederick stubbornly persisted in chasing his dream.
In 1928, Rohwedder’s rebuilt “power-driven and multi-bladed” slicer was put into service at Chillicothe Baking Company, Missouri, a business that was owned by his friend Frank Bench. The latter advertised the resulting process as the “greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped” (providing the genesis of the slogan “the greatest thing since sliced bread”).
Starting in 1930, one of the first brands to distribute sliced bread was Wonder by the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis. Wonder Bread soon sold nationally and its appeal soared once it was marketed in sliced form. By that time the automatic slicing machine could be found all over the nation as it coincided with the transition from homemade to commercially produced bread.
With the age of fast food dawning, the sandwich conquered America. Its history is a tale of migration.
Eat & Gamble
When journalism was in its infancy, London coffeehouses functioned as reading rooms where newsletters, gazettes and pamphlets were distributed. Runners were employed to report and spread breaking news. Far from being a site of disinterested discourse and/or communication, the coffeehouse was a hotbed of strife and faction as one’s political conviction was marked by the choice of location.
In the early 1700s a person with Whig sympathies would no more go to the Cocoa Tree Coffee House at 64 St James’s Street, Westminster, than a Tory would be seen in St James’s Coffee House a bit further down the same road. The earliest public consumption of a sandwich was associated with the regulars at the Cocoa Tree which by then had become a private club with a notorious reputation for gambling.
The first written record was supplied by the historian Edward Gibbon who on November 24, 1762, noted in his journal that he had spent time in the Cocoa Tree in the company of a select clientele supping “upon a bit of cold meat, or a Sandwich.” Where did the word “sandwich” originate from and why did the author use the term in capitalized form?
Sandwich is a historical coastal town in Kent. The -wich appears in a number of English place names and is derived from the Anglo-Saxon, meaning a dwelling or fortified place where trade takes place. The name Sandwich referred to a ‘market town on sandy soil’ and is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. The noble title Earl of Sandwich, created in 1660 in the Peerage of England for the naval commander Admiral Edward Montagu, is nominally associated with the town.
John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, England’s Postmaster General and First Lord of the Admiralty (in 1778 Captain James Cook named the Sandwich Islands after him), was one of many aristocrats who were hooked on cards and gambling. His favorite game was Euchre which he had learned to play while serving in the Royal Navy.
An offshoot of “Juckerspiel” [Jucker: from which the name Joker is derived], a game that originated in the Alsace region and was played throughout Europe during the Napoleonic era. Having been introduced by early immigrants from the Germanic regions in the 1800s, it became one of the most popular card games in the United States during the nineteenth century.
Food historians attribute the creation of the sandwich to Montagu’s unwillingness to interrupt his gambling sessions for the inconvenience of supper. In 1762, he instructed an unnamed chef on the premises to prepare some nourishment that would not interfere with his game. He was presented with sliced beef between two pieces of toast that he could consume with one hand. As no utensils were required, the gambling could proceed.
The rumor spread and this type of light repast quickly became popular amongst (male) aristocrats especially during long and late drinking parties. By 1775 the word had been accepted in culinary terminology when Charlotte Mason offered sandwich recipes in her comprehensive cookbook The Lady’s Assistant. The sandwich began making its way throughout England.
Salt Beef Sarnies
Russian and East European Jewish immigrants into London during the later decades of the nineteenth century and beyond, would have a major impact on the sandwich habit.
Morris Bloom was born in Lithuania (date unknown). He moved to London in 1910. This was a difficult time for any newcomer to settle in Britain. By the turn of the century, a populist media backlash that was driven by reactionary newspapers such as the Daily Mail had begun against “uncontrolled” immigration. The British Brothers League (BBL) of immigrant bashers was formed in 1902 along paramilitary lines with the support of numerous (Conservative) politicians. The 1905 Aliens Act introduced strict entry requirements.
While the Act was ostensibly designed to prevent paupers or criminals from entering the country, its main objective was to halt “rampant” Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. In spite of the blockade, many migrants still managed to gain access to the country. Morris Bloom was one of them. A master sausage maker who had learned to pickle meat before leaving his country of birth, Bloom established himself in the food trade.
In 1920 he opened a shop in Brick Lane providing salt beef and kosher food to an Orthodox Jewish clientele. Solomon “Sidney” Bloom was born on January 1, 1921, in Brick Lane. He entered the family business at the age of sixteen. During the early 1930s, Morris moved the restaurant to the corner of Old Montague Street. The family also owned premises on Whitechapel High Street.
In 1952, a year after the death of his father, Sidney Bloom opened an establishment there that styled itself “the most famous kosher restaurant in Great Britain” (according to a sign hung above the entrance door). Sidney provided East European Jewish food – gefilte fish, chicken soup with lockshen, potato latkes, and salt beef sandwiches – as well as tea and coffee without milk, according to the requirement of kashrut (dietary laws).
The sandwich reached new heights of popularity. London’s lasting passion for salt beef “sarnies” (the etymology of the word has not been traced) is Bloom’s legacy.
Passion for Pastrami
It took considerable time for the sandwich to cross the Atlantic. Colonial chefs of the later eighteenth century were reluctant to adopt British trends or fashions. Even if they put bread and meat (mostly ham) combinations on the menu, they would not have used the word “sandwich.” It was not until 1815/6 that the term began featuring in American cookbooks.
Established in 1888 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Katz’s Delicatessen is today the city’s oldest deli offering such specialties as hot meat sandwiches: corned beef, pastrami, and brisket of beef. The establishment’s history runs in many ways parallel to that of Bloom’s in the East End of London, but Katz did have a notable predecessor.
Pastrami was introduced to New York during a wave of Jewish immigration from Romania in the second half of the nineteenth century. At home, goose or mutton were used to make pastrami (pastrama in Romanian). In an era that preceded refrigeration, raw meat was brined and seasoned with herbs and spices, before being smoked in order to preserve the food.
As beef brisket was much cheaper than goose meat in America, Romanian Jews modified their recipe and produced the alternative beef pastrami. Newcomers do not forget. They adapt. The taste of food is the strongest link with their past.
The pioneer of Manhattan’s deli was a young Orthodox Jew who in 1887 had emigrated from Vilna, Lithuania, with his wife and seven children. He had nine fingers, having shot one off to avoid the Russian draft. Once settled in New York City, Sussman Volk opened a small butcher shop on the Lower East Side.
Having befriended an immigrant from Romania whom he allowed to store some meat products in one of his large iceboxes, he received in exchange for this gesture of goodwill a recipe for making pastrami. Tentatively at first, Volk began serving the food to his customers. Soon, people were queuing outside his shop. His pastrami sandwiches topped with spicy brown mustard and a kosher dill pickle on the side proved so popular that by 1888 he was able to open Manhattan’s first deli in Delancey Street.
The pastrami on rye sandwich would become a symbol of the classic Manhattan Jewish deli. Sussman Volk was the creator of New York’s “signature sandwich.”
Illustrations, from above: Otto Frederick Rohwedder; Rohwedder and his bread slicing machine; early advert for sliced bread by the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis; Pastrami on rye sandwich; and Sussman Volk’s kosher Deli in Delancey Street, Manhattan.
Richard Daly says
Hold the pastrami, please, Jaap. Focus on Wonder Bread. As USArmy dependents in post-WW2 Germany, Uncle Sam’s Commissary sold us bleached-white-flour bread (Brand X?) – We ‘shared’ a pre-sliced loaf with our baby-sitter’s family. Oma (Granny) spread slices with butter/margarine, as available, sprinkled same with beet-sugar, when affordable, and shared the creation with her cronies; calling it American CAKE! And so it was, among those people … in that place … at that time, children. 🙂
peter Waggitt says
Brilliant homage and linkage to the wonderful sandwich.
Nothing has changed with the Daily Mail!!
Amy Godine says
I was weirdly riveted by all of this. It is not only very difficult to get a seriously great pastrami sandwich today, I now fear that anybody under 60 accustomed to the “new” pastrami (pre-packed, under-fatty, under-cured, under-peppered, precision-cut, all pink and no pizzazz) has no clue what seriously authentic pastrami tastes like and would shrink from the real thing.
This article was terrific. So much history in a bite of food!
Arlene Steinberg says
Civilization is defined by its stomach!!