Poetry and the industrialization of bread, 1903

In 1903, Washburn-Crosby, the makers of Gold Medal Flour (they would later become General Mills), tried a new sort of magazine ad. Instead of a photo or illustration captioned by a short homily about how wonderful the flour was, this new ad, which ran in Ladies’ Home Journal, was simply a recipe for baking bread, written as a poem, with each verse accompanied by a photograph or an illustration. It’s terribly entertaining, if you enjoy that sort of thing — the rhymes are forced, the tone is cheesy, and it is, of course, by twenty-first century standards, cheerfully sexist. But it’s also a window into bread and baking at the turn of the last century, and into the ways industry was changing them — even inside the home.

gold medal ad, 1905

A more typical ad. Compared to “There is no possibility of dust or foreign matter in Gold Medal Flour,” the poem is genius.

“When a well bred girl expects to wed,” the poem begins, “‘Tis well to remember that men like bread.” Of course women did the cooking in 1903, and home-baked bread was the sign of a good home: as a rule, only the poor bought their bread, and bought bread was poor bread. It was simply expected that a “well bred” girl would, once married, bake bread. But over the course of the nineteenth century, well-bred girls spent less and less time learning anything useful at home and more and more time in schools studying subjects that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to apply as adults. In 1870 they might have simply hired servants, but by 1900, it was also getting hard to find good help, as immigrant girls could find work in factories. So there were legions of newly married women who found themselves, with virtually no training, faced with the prospect of baking their families’ bread once or twice a week.

Where young women saw frustration, Washburn-Crosby saw opportunity. Since about 1880, Washburn-Crosby had branded its flour “Gold Medal” to set it apart from the competition, and their marketing department gradually recognized that the way to sell flour was to sell success in baking. “No disappointments,” they promised. This is the company that would, twenty years later, invent Betty Crocker, the great personification of baking success. Before 1900 they, like other companies, were giving away cookbooks of “guaranteed” recipes using their flour. This picture poem took the strategy a step further, using photos and illustrations to show steps in the baking process — which seems obvious now, but was innovative at the time. (It’s an early ancestor of the incredibly popular 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book.)

If you look closely, the recipe itself is actually a little bit innovative, too. It calls for making a sponge, though it doesn’t use that term. Most nineteenth-century bread recipes started by making the dough, and instructions called for kneading anywhere from half an hour to an hour. New flours, like Gold Medal, were milled from wheat grown in the northern Great Plains, especially North Dakota, and both the climate and the wheat variety produced a higher-protein flour that didn’t require as much keading. (To grind that hard flour, millers turned to new steel roller mills, which also enabled them for the first time to remove the germ from the wheat — removing the last of its flavor and nutrition.) That suited the trend of the time, which was to take the physical labor out of cooking. A sponge gives that extra gluten time to develop and thus reduce the time required for kneading. So Gold Medal wasn’t only selling success but also ease — a theme we’ve been seeing in food ads ever since.

The recipe also calls for pressed yeast cakes, then a fairly new product; until the end of the 19th century, women had to maintain active liquid cultures of yeast for baking. This recipe therefore calls for sugar, which didn’t appear in most older recipes for bread. Certain cranky traditionalists who insist that bread contain nothing but flour, water, salt, and yeast are mistaken, because those liquid yeast cultures were fed with all sorts of things — potatoes, bran, even pumpkin—and quite often flavored and preserved with hops, a holdover from the days when yeast was bought from brewers. (In France, where there was no tradition of brewing, bread was leavened with sourdough, which also added considerably more flavor than flour, water, salt, and pure yeast would ordinarily have.)

What this is, then, is an early recipe for home-baked but essentially industrial bread, made from factory-consistent flour and yeast with the most convenience and least work possible. Washburn-Crosby’s strategy for marketing flour to consumers would, I believe, eventually backfire: once people learned to want easy success and standard results instead of the product of craft, they didn’t need flour any longer. They could buy Wonder Bread.

But while you ponder that, have a good laugh about the poem.

“Here’s a Recipe for Making Bread”

(Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1903, p. 37)

When a well bred girl expects to wed,
‘Tis well to remember that men like bread.
We’re going to show the steps to take,
So she may learn good bread to bake.

First, mix a lukewarm quart, my daughter,
One half of milk and one-half of water.
To this please add two cakes of yeast,
Or the liquid kind of preferred in the least.

Next stir in a teaspoonful of nice clear salt,
If this bread isn’t good, it won’t be our fault.
Now add the sugar, tablespoons three;
Mix well together, for dissolved they must be.

Pour the whole mixture into an earthen bowl,
A pan’s just as good, if it hasn’t a hole,
It’s the cook and the flour, not the bowl or the pan,
That — “Makes the bread that makes the man.”

Now let the mixture stand a minute or two,
You’ve other things of great importance to do.
First sift the flour — use the finest in the land.
Three quarts is the measure, “Gold Medal” the brand.

Some people like a little shortening power,
If this is your choice, just add to the flour
Two tablespoons of lard, and jumble it about,
Till the flour and lard are mixed without doubt.

Next sift the flour into the mixture that’s stood
Waiting to play its part, to make the bread good.
Mix it up thoroughly, but not too thick;
Some flours make bread that’s more like a brick.

Now grease well a bowl and put the dough in,
Don’t fill the bowl full, that would be a sin;
For the dough is all right and it’s going to rise,
Till you will declare that it’s twice the old size.

Brush the dough with melted butter, as the recipes say;
Cover with a bread towel, set in a warm place to stay
Two hours or more, to rise until light,
When you see it grow, you’ll know it’s all right.

As soon as it’s light place again on the board;
Knead it well this time. Here is knowledge to hoard.
Now back in the bowl once more it must go,
And set again to rise for an hour or so.

Form the dough gently into loaves when light,
And place it in bread pans greased just right.
Shape each loaf you make to half fill the pan,
This bread will be good enough for any young man.

Next let it rise to the level of pans — no more,
Have the temperature right — don’t set near a door.
We must be careful about draughts; it isn’t made to freeze,
Keep the room good and warm — say seventy-two degrees.

Now put in the oven, — it’s ready to bake, —
Keep uniform fire, great results are at stake.
One hour more of waiting and you’ll be repaid,
By bread that is worthy “A Well Bred Maid.”