The history of the sandwich

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 Charting the rise of the sandwich, from invention to evolution, from where it’s been to where it’s going.

The humble sandwich. The ‘sando’. Two slices with the hearty stuff in between.

The sandwich is undoubtedly the most ingenious use of bread in the history of, well, bread. Savoury. Sweet. Toasted. Fresh. Baked. Open. Submarine. Single slice. Two slices. Triple-decker. Cut into triangles, rectangles or squares, or simply folded in half. Crust on or crust off?

Conveniently prepared in record time with a few swift swipes of a butter knife and inhaled as you walk out the door. Or lovingly layered and adorned with fanciful trimmings and condiments and built up into a full meal. 

The sandwich is as versatile as it is ubiquitous. Enjoy it however you may, but the fact is that you could walk into almost any foodservice business anywhere in the world – or indeed almost any home anywhere in the world – and the supplies would most likely be on hand to fix you a sandwich of some kind.

John Montagu 4th Earl of Sandwich

Tracing the rise of the sandwich

Like most universally available and adored items, it’s hard to put a definitive date on the official birth date and birth place of the sandwich. However, most food historians – yes, that’s a thing – attribute the invention of the sandwich to John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, a historic town on the River Stour in the county of Kent, south-east England.

The oft-told story goes that Montagu, a prominent naval commander and patron to Captain James Cook, was unusually rowdy and laddish for a gentlemen of his esteemed social status. In 1762 (some 256 years ago) while gambling at the cards table late one night he called for the kitchen to bring him beef served between slices of bread. This was a peculiar request in 1762, but it was one that would allow Montagu to eat while continuing to play cards. Intrigued, Montagu’s gambling mates supposedly then asked the kitchen for, “the same as Sandwich”.

Thus the name “sandwich” was bestowed upon what is now both a global convenience meal and a fully-fledged, standalone meal. Fun fact though: when Montagu was offered the earldom he had the option of choosing Portsmouth over Sandwich, meaning his inadvertent culinary invention could’ve been given the name “portsmouth” instead of “sandwich”. “Portsmouth” just doesn’t have the same appetising ring to it.

Hillel sandwich

A muddled history                                              

While most chalk up the invention of the sandwich to Montagu, the idea of placing other types of food in between or on top of pieces of bread or bread-like substances to roughly form a meal predates 1762…by a margin of centuries.

Way back in the 1st Century B.C., Jewish rabbi Hillel the Elder created a Passover custom that involved putting a concoction of chopped nuts, apples, spices, and wine between two matzohs (brittle, flat bread). This led to what is now known as the Hillel sandwich. So, technically this marks the invention of the first recorded sandwich, even if wasn’t christened with the name ‘sandwich’.

Elsewhere, the rudimentary idea of a sandwich can be traced to Europe and the Middle Ages (5th to 15th Century), when thick slabs of coarse bread called “trenchers” were used as plates for meals. Granted, this bread was usually stale and after the meal the food-soaked slice was typically fed to a dog or to beggars, or eaten if circumstances were modest. But the idea of meats and other foods stacked on a slice of bread was roughly present here, arguably marking the invention of the open sandwich, of sorts.

Skip forward to the 16th and 17th Centuries and sandwiches were being enjoyed en masse in England, even if they were rather prosaically referred to simply as “bread and meat” or “bread and cheese”, as Mark Morton pointed out in his 2004 published article ‘Bread And Meat For God’s Sake’.

It wasn’t long after this that the good Earl of Sandwich John Montagu gave it the name it has now long been known as. So, while Montagu didn’t technically invent the sandwich, he did inadvertently bless it with its official title when he called for his beef to be served between slices of bread.

The future is unwritten

While the humble sandwich has a surprisingly storied and long-winded history behind it, it also has plenty of uncharted territory ahead of it. People have been folding sliced bread around pieces of food for centuries and will conceivably continue to do so for centuries to come.

Who knows what incarnation of this versatile, universal culinary creation will be the sandwich of the day in another 256 years. Perhaps by then we’ll have figured out once and for all whether eating the crust really does put hair on your chest.

10 fun sandwich facts

Here are some fun sandwich facts, courtesy of justfunfacts.com.

  • An estimated 300 million sandwiches are consumed every day in the US. In Britain, that number is around 31 million.
  • 60% of sandwiches sold globally are actually hamburgers. In fact, if hamburgers are included, sandwiches account for nearly half of all limited-service restaurant sales.
  • The most expensive sandwich ever sold in a restaurant, named the Quintessential Grilled Cheese and made by New York restaurant Serendipity 3, sold for US$214. The most expensive sandwich ever sold anywhere – a grilled toast that seemed to have an image of Virgin Mary on it – sold for US$28,000 on eBay.
  • The Wall Street Journal has described the sandwich as Britain’s “biggest contribution to gastronomy”.
  • The largest sandwich in history weighed 2467.5kg (almost 2.5 tonnes) and was 44cm thick, 3.6m wide and 3.6m long. It contained 68kg of mustard, 468.1kg of corned beef, 117.9kg of cheese, 240.4kg of lettuce and 1,618.4kg of bread.
  • In 2008, an attempt in Iran to beat the record for the world’s biggest sandwich failed when the impatient crowd started eating the sandwich before it was measured.
  • The longest sandwich in history measured 735m.
  • The most layers in a sandwich is 60 and was achieved by DiLusso Deli Company in New York City in October 2016.
  • Hawaii used to be called ‘The Sandwich Islands’, name by Captain James Cook in honour of John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich.
  • The verb ‘to sandwich’ is 200 years old and was first used in 1815 to mean ‘to have a light meal’.

Celebrating 20 years in the business of bread in 2018, Bakers Maison is specialist manufacturer of French style breads and has been creating an assortment of breads for sandwiches using the same authentic French recipes since 1998. Find out more about our variety of sandwich breads.


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