Guide White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf

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Despite all that, though, I have never gotten over the slight flutter of unease I first felt drinking raw milk--the modern intuition that maybe there was something dangerous about getting milk from a cow instead of a factory. This unease has haunted Americans since they first began to grasp the existence of an invisible world of small, possibly threatening organisms.

Not without cause. Until mandated pasteurization, milk was a key vector for typhoid and other serious diseases. Throughout U.

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Muckraking journalists, campaigning scientists, and an army of civically engaged middle- and upper-class women horrified by unsafe food took to the streets, courts, and legislatures, demanding change. Sinclair had hoped to spark outrage over the inhuman conditions experienced by immigrant meatpackers. Pure Foods activists forced manufacturers to change the way they handled and distributed food, boycotted unsanitary establishments out of business, forced state and local officials to take food safety more seri- ously, and passed what still serves as a the bedrock of all federal food safety regulation, the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Unfortunately, their efforts were far from perfect and were steadily watered down over the next century. Serious food-borne illnesses affected millions and sent hundreds of thousands to hospitals during the s and early s. Food safety regulations, some with roots in , appeared impotent in the face of a far-flung global food sys- tem dominated by powerful corporations. It felt like the s all over again. On the other hand, few Americans alive today can imagine a time when the specter of unclean bread was as scary as germ-clotted milk or tainted beef. And yet, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the menace of contaminated bread was no less a topic of public outcry than dirty meat or milk.

Accurately or not, a simple loaf of bread from a small urban bakery seemed to many consumers a harbinger of death and disease. During the first decades of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of New Yorkers flocked to the Ward Bakery on school field trips and weekly tours to witness the spectacle. In the early twentieth century, when average Americans got 30 percent of their daily calories from bread, more than any other single food, New Yorkers ate more bread than any other group in the country.

New Yorkers also purchased more of their bread than the rest of the country, and they bought a lot of it from the Ward Baking Company. By the end of the s, the company had extended that power across the entire country, coming astoundingly close to achieving monopoly control over every single sizable bread market in the nation. The Ward family achieved this dominance by pioneering key technological breakthroughs, running roughshod over union labor, laying waste to small competitors, and concocting financial machinations that would have dazzled Gordon Gecko.

But the Ward Baking Company owed its uncanny ability to win over skeptical customers to a much larger sense of disquiet hanging over early twentieth-century America.

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  • The Ward Bakery went up in Brooklyn at a moment when poor wheat harvests, commodity speculation, and the power of railroad monopolies had stressed bread supplies, causing occasional riots and widespread fear of famine. The country was divided on how bread should be produced in the first place. From the s to the s, a singular convergence of forces buffeted the United States, upending all sense of stability and order. Unprecedented influxes of southern and eastern European immigrants, rapid urbanization, explosive technological change, and a series of grave economic downturns strained old institutions built around the dream of an Anglo-Saxon nation of self-sufficient rural communities.