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Wonder Bread: The Most Famous White Bread

Wonder Bread logo

Wonder Bread was first made by the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis. It was a factory-made bread, but the Taggart family had been making bread the “old-fashioned way” for fifty years. Bakeries were the family business.

The first Taggart Bakery was started around 1870, with its earliest location in Anderson, Indiana. By the early 1900s, grandson Alexander Taggart and his brother wanted to expand their operation and open a bakery in Indianapolis. Their operation was growing beyond a mom-and-pop business, so they built a factory for making bread. By the end of World War I, the family was experimenting with a new white bread recipe they thought would do well.

The Taggarts assigned a company vice president to create a way to introduce this new bread. Elmer Cline was at the International Balloon Race held at the Indianapolis Speedway in 1920 when he came up with an idea.

As he stood in the stands, he was struck with wonder by the site of the huge cluster of colorful hot air balloons making their way into the sky. He couldn’t stop thinking of the beauty of it and decided “Wonder” was the perfect name for the new bread. The packaging would be all white (emphasizing the cleanliness of factory-made bread) dotted with red, white, and yellow balloons.

The family loved the idea.

How Was Bread Made in the Late 1890s?

During the 19th century (and earlier), bread-making was an important aspect of family life. For many years, the chore fell to the women of the household. Because bread fulfilled calorie and nutritional needs, the task generally needed to be done daily.

Families arrived in this country as the Taggart family had done and some decided to open bakery businesses. These bakers were almost always the men of the family. The bread they made tended to be some form of whole wheat as white flour was more costly because of the labor involved in removing the outer bran.

As more people moved to cities to take jobs in the newly developing industries, there was less time for bread-making. Many of the local bakers began experimenting with ways to mechanize parts of their labor.

Eventually factories were built that could produce bread “without ever being touched by human hands.” The factories were planned as white buildings with clean lines to reinforce the thought that factory bread was made in a sterile environment.

Some advertisements for factory bread noted that “bread kneaded by hand or mixed by hand can never be a truly sanitary product.” Or: “Know where your bread comes from—no hands touched this bread.” Because immigrants tended to run the local bakeries, these sales angles were tinged with an anti-immigrant feeling.

In addition to stressing that the bread was never touched by human hands, they also advertised: “Tastes as good as homemade.”

Some bakeries offered in-person tours to reassure the public about the cleanliness of the plant; others built windows near the conveyor belt so that people could watch the bread-making process through the window.

Then There Was Wonder Bread

Just after World War I ended, the Taggarts were hard at work on a bread they thought would sell well. The bread was to be all-white and very light and fluffy to the touch.

loaf of white factory bread
Unsliced white bread.

White bread was increasingly popular, and the light, puffiness was important to bread buyers. At that time, food producers did not have to put “sell by” dates on any product. The consumer’s method for testing for freshness involved squeezing the packaged bread. The customer felt that if it was soft and light then it was fresh. 

Introducing Wonder

In order to build excitement for the new product, Cline opted for what is known as “blind advertising.” This involved running ads for a “mystery product,” promising that it would soon be revealed. The first display ad was relatively small and was placed in the Indianapolis newspaper. The ad featured the word “Wonder” in large type.  Underneath was a tag line, “How often do you use this word every day? Check yourself.”

But Cline’s plan went awry for circumstances beyond his control. Just beneath the “Wonder” ad, the newspaper’s layout editor placed an ad for a medical device used by doctors to repair “ruptures.” The two items looked linked.

This was definitely not the “Wonder” that Cline and Taggart were aiming for.

Next Ad Continues the Mystery

But Cline was intent on keeping the product a surprise. The next ad was a bigger ad that teased the public even more:

WONDER
You've wondered now for several days,
You've checked yourself in many ways.
This word, you know, you'll not forget
But the real WONDER is unknown yet.
Just remember this--you'll never find 
A WONDER of a better kind.

Bread Arrives in Stores

On May 24, 1921, Wonder Bread arrived in the stores.

The reception was positive. The bakery reassured them: “Wonder is squeezably soft,” and customers liked the fresh feel of the bread. When they took it home, everyone in the family liked the taste of the soft white loaf.  The advertising reminded customers, “Better than homemade.”

But of course, Taggart Bakery was a local bakery. While the bread sold decently, it was very much a regional product. By 1925, change was in the works. It was a time of consolidation for smaller businesses, so the baking companies that had money were eager to expand.

 Continental Baking Company (formerly the Ward Baking Company, another long-time family bakery that had grown) swooped in to buy Taggarts. Continental knew that Taggarts was succeeding with a new product that would be a great addition to their line.

Sweets Are Part of Bake Shops

Like most bakeries, muffins, cookies, and cakes were a logical add-on for a bakery. In the days of small bakeries, people would buy both bread and cakes. As factories began making bread, it was only a matter of time that they add sweets as well. Taggarts created a separate subsidiary for their treats. It was called Hostess.

Hostess cupcake
Hostess Cupcake

The first product?

In 1919, Hostess began selling a dual pack of chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting—two for a nickel. (The cream filling was added in 1950, so it was a later development.) Because Twinkies are the better-known Hostess product, most people assume that Twinkies are the top seller. As it happens, the chocolate cupcakes outsell Twinkies year after year.

The Wonder Bread brand wasn’t the only Taggart property that continued to grow under Continental Baking Company. The first cream-filled cake under the Hostess label were Twinkies, dating to 1930. The product was the idea of James Dewar who was a baker in one of the Illinois Continental Baking factories.

The company generally dedicated an assembly line to a strawberry shortcake sweet, but the line went quiet when strawberries weren’t in season. Dewar noticed that and suggested a new product—a sponge cake with filling. Originally the filling was a banana filling but by 1940, Hostess needed to change the filling. Bananas were rationed by the War Board. The bakers got to work and put together a cream filling that could be made within the permissible limits of sugar that could be used at that time. 

The Hostess Snoball is another relatively early sweet from the company. If you study how it is made, the product may well have come about because of “cupcake missteps.” The Snoball consists of an upside down cream-filled cupcake, covered with marshmallow frosting and sprinkled with coconut flakes. 

Other Hostess sweets include Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Brownie Bites, and mini-muffins.

Wonder Becomes a National Brand

Because Continental Baking Company had been acquiring several other small bakeries, they had the opportunity for nationwide distribute of their newly-acquired product. Wonder Bread was soon being manufactured in factories outside the Indiana area, and of course, it was being sold nationally. 

But the government took note of the mergers and expansions, and Continental faced an anti-trust suit. By 1926, Continental was told to split up their empire. Continental complied but also continued to acquire. About a year later, the anti-trust suite was dismissed.

Selling More Bread

Until the late 1920s, bread was sold unsliced. It helped keep a loaf fresh, and the bread-slicing machine had not yet been introduced. At home, a soft bread loaf like Wonder would have been a bit tricky to slice. Even with a very good bread knife, it would have been hard not to put too much pressure on the loaf. 

bread-slicing machine
Bread-slicing machine

But there were inventors working on ways to slice bread. Otto Frederick Rohwedder (1880-1960) was a jeweler who owned three jewelry stores in St. Joseph, Missouri. He was also a tinkerer, and in his free time, he experimented with lots of different inventions. His first prototype for a bread-slicer was completed in 1917, but a bad fire in his workspace caused him to start over again. By 1927, he was satisfied. He had a device that simultaneously sliced an entire loaf of bread. (See the Invention of Bread-Slicing for the full story.)  He had a friend in Chillicothe, Missouri, so he traveled there with his new device so that it could be tested. 

It was a success, and people loved it.

Speedy Adaptation By Factories

Continental Baking Company heard about the new invention. They wasted no time figuring out how a slicing machine could be added in their factories. By this time, Rohwedder had created a second component for the slicer that would hold the bread together while a machine wrapped it in waxed paper and sent each loaf down the assembly line.

By 1930, Wonder Bread was being sold as a sliced bread. The company is sometimes credited with inventing sliced bread, but it did not. However, Continental Baking Company gets full credit for popularizing selling sales of sliced bread.

Sliced white bread

Sliced bread undoubtedly increased bread consumption. If consumers could simply reach into the package for a slice of bread, it made it more easy to use as a snack, for lunch, or something to accompany a family dinner. (Americans at this time ate 7-8 slices of bread every day.)

And of course, now we have the well-known phrase, “greatest thing since sliced bread,” which is used to describe the type of invention that positively affects day-to-day life.

Scientific Knowledge Grows

During the late 19th century, scientists were publishing on topics relating to vitamins and how vitamin deficiencies led to illness. Among the diseases that were appearing in relatively healthy Americans in the early 1900s were beriberi and pellagra. Beriberi is caused by a deficiency of thiamin (B1), which is necessary to help the human body digest foods. It can cause night blindness, and affects metabolism, muscles, and the nervous system.

Pellagra comes from a deficiency in Niacin (B3). A slight deficiency is sometimes not noticed, but as the deficiency becomes more severe, it leads to what are known as the “Four D’s”: diarrhea, dementia, dermatitis, and death. 

Scientific papers talking about the importance of vitamins were in the news, so the public was slowly becoming aware of nutrition and what elements foods needed to contain.

Wonder Bread was one of many products—including many cereals—that were solely using white flour in the 1920s-30s. This, of course, stripped the flour of all the natural nutrients in wheat and grain.  Doctors noted an increase in health problems among young people, and the scientific world began to figure out that this dietary change might have been a cause of some of the problems.

Flour Hearings

As the specter of World War II loomed, military officers were becoming concerned. If the United States entered the war, they needed Americans who were healthy enough to fight and even more who were strong enough to work in all the growing industries that were already necessary to supply the Allies.

Congressional “flour hearings” began in 1940. Scientists knew that there were ways to add vitamins and nutrients back into bread. They needed to encourage the industry to do so. (Ironically, brown breads and whole wheat breads maintained the vitamins and minerals that humans need. It was the purifying and bleaching of the white flour for breads and cereals that caused the harm.)

Continental Baking Company

 By this time, Continental Baking Company was led by a forward-thinking executive named Lee Marshall. Marshall grew up in Marshall, Missouri, and was descended from John Marshall (1755-1835), the fourth chief justice of the United States. Though he had an impressive family tree, no family inheritance came along with it.

Lee Marshall’s father was a bookkeeper at a flour mill, and Lee Marshall began his career as an office boy for the company. As he got a little older, he attended business school and became a stenographer for Swift & Company. In 1907, he started his own flour brokerage business that was eventually acquired by a larger company that became Continental Baking Company. Marshall began working there in 1924 and rose quickly within the company ranks. From 1934-1944, he was Chairman of the company.

Marshall Saw the Benefits of Enriched Bread

As he observed the Congressional hearings and the presentation of scientific data, he quickly saw the wisdom of enriching all breads that Continental was baking. Since “health” had been in the news, Marshall saw value in touting the benefits of Wonder Bread.

The initial advertising talked about the fact that Wonder Bread helped “Build Bodies in 8 Ways.” (About twenty years later, the advertising cited twelve ways.) Seven of the “ways” were all the vitamins and nutrients that companies were putting back into breads and cereals. The eighth “ingredient” in Wonder’s case, was “energy.”

  1. Protein
  2. Calcium
  3. Phosphorous
  4. Iron
  5. Vitamin B1
  6. Vitamin B2
  7. Niacin
  8. And energy

The enriched breads and cereals helped improve the health of Americans. Cases of beriberi and pellagra dropped, and men proved healthy enough to be in the military. 

Lee Marshall’s Work Noticed

Lee Marshall’s executive skills were noted by government administrators. They needed smart executives to help navigate all the problems that were cropping up as the U.S. prepared for the possibility of war. When they first brought him in to help, the country was facing a tremendous supply chain problem. Marshall was able to unclog the bottle neck and get needed supplies on their way to Europe.

With that success, Marshall was added to the War Production Board to serve as a food consultant. The United States needed to increase food quantities going overseas, but the country also needed to improve the agricultural output at the same time that men were enlisting in the military.

The work being done by the War Food Administration involved making agricultural decisions as to what was grown and where it was shipped. They also had to find safe storage for everything from grain to foods requiring refrigeration so that nothing would spoil before it was shipped.

At home the war effort was primarily accepted without too much complaint. Many families grew Victory Gardens and raised chickens so they would be less dependent on local farmers that were often growing food for overseas. As they did during World War I, women stepped into agricultural roles, ranging from dairy work to crop harvesting. (During World War II, the Women’s Land Army operated from 1943-1947 as part of the United States Crop Corps.)

Sliced Bread

Among the minor casualties of war was the government demand that bread was to no longer be sold sliced. The reasoning behind this was unclear. If a bread slicing machine already existed, was the government gathering those machines to re-purpose the steel? Or was the rule actually because the government did not want new bread slicing devices made?

Others said the rule pertained to savings on waxed paper—what the bread was wrapped in after it was sliced. Still others put forward that it was a way to reduce consumption of bread by consumers. Because it had to be sliced to be eaten, it wasn’t as convenient as a snack food.

Whatever the thinking, the American public was outraged. Americans were dealing with Meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays. (Both programs that were started during World War I.) They also faced the rationing of butter, sugar, and canned milk, not to mention gasoline.  

Many families also donated pets to see if they would qualify for the U.S. K-9 Corps, which did not exist at this time. (Ten thousand family dogs were donated. Those that didn’t qualify were returned.)

When it came to giving up sliced bread, the extra sacrifice seemed pointless. The outcry was enough that the government backed down. Within a few months, consumers could again buy sliced bread.

Post-War Days: Bread and Television

As veterans came home, many bought homes (with government loans) and started families.  And of course, as moms made sandwiches for the kids, Wonder Bread was easy, (enriched), and convenient. A triple win.  

The 1950s also brought in a new household treat: the television. The cabinetry around the television tube was handsome, and the sets were proudly placed in the family living room. As the networks set up programming throughout the day, they saw the wisdom of programming for children. 

Some of the shows were first aired on radio. Howdy Doody was among them. By 1947, Buffalo Bob Smith and Howdy Doody, his marionette sidekick, had a television show. Initially the program was 60 minutes and ran three times each week. It was quite successful, and within a year NBC converted to a 30-minute program that could be aired daily.

In the early days of television, shows generally had a “name sponsor.” For Howdy Doody, Wonder Bread was a perfect fit. Children watched the show and ate sandwiches. At that time, products could be talked about within a program.

Today that is no longer allowed, particularly in shows for children.  As you can see from the following clip, Buffalo Bob, fully in character, brings out a yummy sandwich for Howdy Doody. They talk about the sandwich and how tasty it’s going to be. Then Howdy Doody turns directly to the audience and says: “So boys and girls, tell your mother you want a sandwich made with Wonder Bread.  It gives you vitamins, minerals, and energy!” (Today direct selling to children is no longer permitted.)

New Claim: Wonder Bread Builds Bodies 12 Ways

By the late 1960s, direct advertising to children was no longer permitted, so Continental Baking Company came up with new ways to expand their advertising. They now claimed that Wonder Bread built bodies TWELVE ways. (That’s the advertisement most people remember.) The claim was that Wonder Bread:

Wonder bread toy truck
Wonder Bread toy truck

  1. Builds muscle
  2. Bones and teeth
  3. Increases body cells
  4. Improves blood
  5. Creates better appetite
  6. Helps children grow bigger and stronger
  7. Increases brain cells
  8. Adds more red cells
  9. Provides vitamin B
  10. Potassium
  11. Helps build tissue
  12. Supplies more energy

But by 1971, the Federal Trade Commission was taking a careful look at advertising of all types.  The Wonder Bread ads were flagged, and Continental Baking Company had to scale back its promises. 

The Company Today

The Hostess Brand is still with us today, but there were many bumps along the way.

Continental Bakery was sold to ITT (International Telegraph and Telephone) in 1968 when that company was looking to diversify. By 1984, ITT was ready to close out on the baking business and sold to Ralston Purina. 

Next, the baking company was acquired by Interstate Bakeries Corporation in 1995. The combined companies were rebranded Hostess Brands in 2009. That did not last long either, closing in 2012.

During liquidation, some parts of the business rebranded as “Old HB.” Then in 2013, a New HB Acquisition LLC was established. The new company acquired some of the brand names (mainly the snack cakes) and plants from Old HB and reclaimed the name Hostess Brands.

Today Wonder Bread is owned by Flower Foods, and in 2013 the company re-introduced the bread to store shelves with an ad that was reminiscent of the original ad: “The Wonder is back.”

To read about the inventor of the first bread-slicing machine, click here

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3 thoughts on “Wonder Bread: The Most Famous White Bread”

  1. Hi there, please could you email me the recipe to make wonder bread, I’d like to try make it at home .

  2. Hi Michael,

    Recipes like the one for Wonder Bread are proprietary so we are unlikely to know exactly how it was made. Also factory baking would be a very different process. However, I did find this website where people are recommending the “next best thing.” You might read through and decide which one appeals to you. And if you find one you love, come back and provide the link here. People would probably love to know! Thanks for posting… and here’s the link:
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/918076

  3. Pingback: Bread-Slicing Machine: The Inventor - America Comes Alive

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