Take a minute and think about what you had for breakfast this morning. Maybe your eggs or pancakes came with a side of toast. Did you have a sandwich for lunch? Perhaps dinner will be accompanied by bread and butter. How often do you have bread with every meal? These days chances are pretty slim as bread is often a sidekick to our meals, and many people have gluten-free diets. Even though bread is still considered to be one of our staple foods, one that is usually high on our grocery lists with milk and eggs, we are eating far less bread today than even just sixty years ago.
During the Medieval period, most people received 80% of their calories from bread – imagine eating just bread as at least two of your meals! By the 19th century, bread still constituted 30% of daily calories. At this time, most bread was made at home or purchased in small, artisan bakeries. Bread factories were seen as dirty places where the baker might use sawdust or some other filler to cut costs. As food-borne illnesses like cholera and typhus became apparent in the meat and dairy factories, and Upton Sinclair’s graphic exposé The Jungle was published at the turn of the century, Americans feared their food. Even though bread was not a carrier of the contagion, it too was scrutinized. When consumers turned away from the factories, their only other option (besides making it themselves) was the neighborhood bakery. Many were operated by southern and eastern European immigrants, who were stigmatized as “undesirable,” and therefore made undesirable food. In this way, the fear was not really about the bread itself, but of whose hands were making it.
So bread factories got their act together. They presented themselves as clean, modern, and efficient. Their factories were industrialized and spotless as if saying this was a safe place to manufacture food. And they choose white bread as their “flagship” for purity and modernity, implying that anything else was subordinate. The white loaves were even referred to as “chaste” and dark loaves as “defiled” by food reformers.
White bread gained popularity quickly, and bakers scrambled to find the recipe for the perfect loaf. In an effort to find out consumer preferences on the white pan breads, the USDA conducted a study in Rockford between 1954 and 1955. Why Rockford? In 1949, Life magazine declared Rockford to be the most typical city in America. Market researchers came in droves to the shores of the Rock River. During the study, 600 households in Rockford were interviewed about their bread-eating habits and anyone 16 years and older could participate in taste tests. Their results were deemed to be fairly typical of American families across the nation.
According to the study, 95% of households bought bread once a week. People in Rockford ate 1.5 pounds of bread per person per week, regardless of age or economic class. Light bread was always chosen over denser bread as consumers preferred the sweeter, fluffier bread. However, one third of housewives described it as “doughy; gummy; soggy; not well baked.” Some thought it just tasted terrible, and 60%-75% of housewives registered complaints against the bread. Newspaper and magazine articles didn’t have much good to say about the industrial bread either. Despite these issues with the light, white bread, people still bought a whole lot of it. Most households ate bread at all three meals. In 1954, Americans consumed about 8.6 billion loaves of store-bought white bread. Most ate 3 to 7 slices per day, or more.
Why did consumers still choose to buy so much of the fluffy bread, even though they didn’t care for the taste? The industrial white bread was part of the post-war enrichment campaign that claimed the bread “built strength for the individual and national defense.” Rockford’s study confirmed this – depending on the year, 96%-100% of the USDA’s sample believed the bread to be highly nutritious.
Bread and its design have rarely been about the bread itself. It has carried with it anti-immigrant and racist feelings that shaped its form and consumption. Post-war campaigns steered the choice of bread to the white loaf in the name of strength and, essentially, nationalism despite its too-sweet taste. Today, about 72 million loaves of bread are sold each year in America – a dramatic decrease of 99%!
Do you make your own bread? How often do you buy a loaf in the store? What kinds does your family enjoy?
I first heard of the Rockford study while listening to an episode of 99 Percent Invisible, an excellent podcast about the invisible design and architecture that shapes our world. Check them out by following the link below.
Bobrow-Strain, Aaron. White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. Beacon Press: Boston, 2012.
Mars, Roman. “Episode 127: Good Bread.” 99 Percent Invisible, October 22, 2014. Accessed October 22, 2014. http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/good-bread/.
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, Consumer’s Preferences among Baker’s White Breads of Different Formulas: A Survey in Rockford, Illinois (Marketing Research Report No. 118) (Washington, DC: USDA, 1956).