cross section of buckwheat walnut bread

A Short History of (White) Bread in the USA

Have you ever thought about how major historical events relied on seemingly small inventions? Napoleon has Nicolas Appert to thank for his invention of canning. The US would have had a harder time in World War II without the invention of vitamin manufacturing, allowing the production of (more) nutritious white bread!

Bread, being a major staple crop, has played a crucial role in a lot of historical events, especially in Western Europe and the US. (In other cultures and countries, another crop such as rice may have been more influential.) That, combined with a personal interest for the state of bread in the US, led us to dig into the history of bread in the US specifically. How did it develop and change over time?

We are under no illusion that the summary below is a complete history of bread. If you feel like we’ve missed major developments, let us know in the comments below!

Zooming back

Before diving into the history of bread in the US, it’s important to note that bread, or more specifically, bread made from wheat, is still quite a recent thing in the US. Only when the Europeans ‘discovered’ the Americas did wheat get introduced into these areas. Which is only a couple of hundred years ago.

Having said that, we’ll jump ahead a few centuries, into the 18th century.

It starts with a canal

In the late 18th, early 19th-century wheat growing was a very regional business in the US.Most local villages would be growing wheat not too far out, which was milled and eaten in that same region. Remember, at the time, the US was still far removed from its 50 states. Railroads didn’t yet exist, so people had to transport wheat using either available water routes, or pack animals. Even transporting wheat from Western New York state to the East Coast was cost-prohibitive at the time.

All of that changed with the completion of the Erie canal in 1825, which connected the Great Lakes with New York City. Costs of shipping wheat and flour within the state plummeted! As a result, grain milling and growing started to move westward, moving along with the ‘discovery’ of more land to the west.

Milling developed as well

Throughout the same period in time, grain milling transformed as well. The energy source required to run the mills changed from wind, to water, to steam. Towards the end of the 19th century a burst of inventions to improve milling occurring. A major change was the shift from stone to roller mills. But a lot of seemingly smaller inventions, such as sifting systems, new purifiers, and grain washing systems all contributed to a boost in a grain milling efficiency!

The new canal and technologies, moved milling away from a more regionally focused system, to a more centralized system.

stone flour mill in Winchester UK
An old stone mill (in the USA)

From home to bakery

In the early and mid-19th century, the majority of the bread eaten in the US was made at home, by the wives and women of the family. It was an important, but very time-consuming task, keeping a lot of women homebound to deal with the finicky yeast. This all changed very rapidly in the matter of only a few decades (much how electric rice cookers upended rice cooking in big parts of Asia). By 1930 as much as 90% of all the bread was baked out of home!

Several developments enabled this massive change. First of all, all those improvements in milling technology enabled the more efficient production of white flour.

Second, people figured out how to bake bread in an efficient way on a larger scale. There had always been bakeries, but automating these was challenging. Bread dough lives and changes with temperature and time. Unlike a car plant, where you wouldn’t expect your door to increase in size if you leave it an extra 30 minutes, bread dough had to be very well controlled! A series of inventions and improvements again enabled this major change. Once this was figured out, huge bread bakeries shot up all over the country. For instance, the Ward Baking Company, one that would go on to become the largest bakery in the country, most known for its Wonder Bread.

Despite the fact that this bread was more expensive (if a family member bakes, labor is ‘free’!) people switched to this factory-made bread very quickly. Convenience was, of course, a major reason, especially giving women a lot more time and freedom. But other trends and developments played a major part as well. For instance, during this time ‘domestic science’ emerged as a field. New theories and thoughts on cleanliness and hygienic eating fit very well with the ‘clean’ factory bread.

Best thing since sliced bread

Up to this point, most of that factory produced bread would be sold as a whole loaf. But a next, seemingly small, invention, upended the bread sales industry.

In 1917 a man named Otto Rohwedder came up with an electric automated bread slicing machine. Initially, no one wanted his machine, they didn’t see why people wouldn’t just want to slice their own bread! But, once the first bakery introduced the technology back in 1928, it would only take a few years before almost all bread was sold sliced. Consumers loved it!

Again, various developments together made this the success it was. First of all, consumers did highly value the convenience of sliced bread. But this was reinforced and enabled by the recent trend to sell bread pre-packaged, influenced by the desire for cleanliness. This made it harder for people to judge the freshness and quality of the bread. You couldn’t smell it as well! Instead, a major determinant of quality became softness, something you could test for by gently squeezing the bread in the pack. A disadvantage of these very soft breads though, was that they were a lot harder to slice at home. Sliced bread would be the answer to this problem!

Sullivan bakery's whole wheat bread, left in closed dutch oven, right open tray

Enriching bread to win a war

Whereas there have always been proponents of both white and wholewheat breads, white breads were clearly preferred by most consumers at this point in time.

White bread might be softer, more delicate, and a consumer’s preferred choice, but a big disadvantage is its lack of nutrients. Vitamins and minerals mainly reside in the outer layer of a wheat kernel and it’s this layer that gets stripped when transforming whole wheat flour into white flour.

Scientists and army recruiters started to notice, in the ’30s and early ’40s that large parts of the population were unfit for service because of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The USA wasn’t the only country affected, various European countries faced similar challenges. Each country solved for this differently. In some countries, wholewheat flour was promoted to the consumer or regulations forced the use of wholewheat flour. In the USA though, another approach was taken.

By this time, scientists had developed the knowledge and expertise to produce and add vitamins and minerals to our food. So, when seeing these challenges in the recruitment of soldiers for World War II, enrichment of white flour with the missing vitamins and minerals became obligatory.

This enrichment, alongside strong marketing campaigns on the health benefits of white bread, stuck with most consumers. For a long time after the war consumers would buy white bread because it was considered highly nutritious, even more so than wholewheat bread. Of course, white bread manufacturers stuck with and strengthened that message.

whole wheat kernel

Bread basket of the world

After World War II the US became the breadbasket for big parts of the world. With large areas recovering from the war, the US sent wheat all over the world. It wasn’t just wheat they exported, but also ways of farming and growing trickled in all over the world. The Green Revolution, along with its reliance on artificial fertilizer and heavy machinery was spread around the world. The revolution had big upsides, significantly increasing yields, but also major downsides, breaking local food production systems.

Improving efficiency

In the meantime, the efficiency of bread making was continuously improved upon. For instance, the quality of yeast had improved greatly, making it a lot more robust, in the past several decades.

In the 1950s a continuous process to make bread was developed which greatly improved efficiency and reduced costs. It was made using a piece of equipment called a Do-Maker. In this process, the dough did not have to rest for as long. Instead, using various additives and powerful continuous mixing, the dough would be developed very quickly. Despite its appeal to some, this process is currently not used as commonly anymore. Consumers thought the bread produced using this method was too homogeneous!

crispy-french-baguette-brilliant-bread-poolish

Diets and beliefs

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Vietnam protests and a range of other major events initiated a counterculture. Wholewheat bread was one of the foods promoted during these uncertain times. Combine this with a health craze in the ’70s and put wholewheat bread was on the rise again. White bread consumption plummeted by 30% whereas overall bread consumption increased.

In the 2000s the reverse happened. Gluten-free and grain-free became the major trends of the day. This resulted in a decrease in bread consumption.

Smaller scale interconnected development

All this time, wheat growing, flour production and bread baking evolve simultaneously. They are so interconnected and dependent on one another that changes in one forced, or enabled, changes in other parts of the supply chain.

Over the past several decades, only a small selection of wheat varieties was grown to suit the need for homogeneous, predictable grains for large scale production. Wheat breeders focused on developing those varieties that worked well for the huge centralized milling systems.

Nowadays though, a bit of a reverse trend is occurring. With consumer’s demand for more locally produced and higher quality foods, a smaller scale system is popping up again.

Spread over the US, there has been a rise of smaller local grain mills. Whereas this still makes for only a very small percentage of the overall flour produced, it has enabled other changes in the supply chain. For instance, farmers can now explore new and different varieties of wheat that might not have worked for the large scale mills.

Again connected to this is an insurgence of smaller bakeries which started in the ’80s and ’90s and continues to this day. Some of these even mill their own flours. Initially, most focused on sweets and cakes, bread being their back burner, but more and more bread focused bakeries have started up. Some of those that started a few decades ago are now (still relatively small) chains such a La Brea Bakery, Acme Bakery, and Sullivan Street Bakery, which further increased an interest in high-quality bread.

The current divide

However, these higher-quality, artisanal loaves come at a cost: price. A delicious loaf with small scale milled local flour can easily cost you over 5 dollars, if not way more. It is not what most Americans, especially those earning minimum wage, or even less, can afford.

It’s caused a divide with on the one hand very high quality, delicious, local, artisanal, but very expensive loaves of bread. And on the other hand the cheap, but less flavorsome white supermarket loaf. Several organizations are working on trying to fill that gap in the middle. The bread industry and its history in the USA will continue to grow, curious to see where it will go next!

References

Aaron Borrow-Strain, White Bread – A Social History of the store-bought loaf, 2012, link

S.P. Cauvain, L S Young, The Chorleywood Bread Process, 2006, link

Federation of bakers, Factsheet No. 7, How bread is made, 01/17, link

Flour.com, History, link

Amy Halloran, The New Bread Basket, 2015, link

Amy Halloran, The History of Aunt Jemima’s Mill: Branding an American Wheat Product, Nov-9, 2013, link

Hancock, James F.. Plant Evolution and the Origin of Crop Species. United Kingdom, CABI, 2003. p48, link

B.S. Khatkar, Bread industry and processes, PGDBST-05, link

Karel Kulp, Handbook of Cereal Science and Technology, Revised and Expanded, Chapter 6 summary, link

Minnesota Historical Society, Minneapolis Flour Boom, link

National Museum of American History, Bread-Slicing Machine, link

Sunmin Park, Nobuko Hongu, James W. Daily, Native American foods: History, culture, and influence on modern diets, Journal of Ethnic Foods, Volume 3, Issue 3, 2016, Pages 171-177,
ISSN 2352-6181, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jef.2016.08.001. link

The Visual Food Encyclopedia. Canada, QA International, 1996. p.322, link

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