Thursday, May 25, 2017

Balloons, Bread and Flour - a History of Wonder Bread

One distinguishing characteristic of American popular culture is its spongy, white bread.  Disdained by American elitists, Europeans and many others, nothing says ‘Merica like soft, white sandwich bread.  

And nothing says white bread like Wonder Bread.

The Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis, Indiana introduced Wonder Bread in 1921.  Although Wonder Bread is frequently (yet mistakenly) credited with inventing pre-sliced bread and popularizing the idiom, “the best thing since sliced bread,” early Wonder Bread was not sliced.  But it did have the familiar, colorful balloon logo.  

Indianapolis News, May 21, 1921, page 3.
Indianapolis News (Indiana), May 25, 1921, page 18.

Look for the WONDER WRAPPER with the many colored balloons.

When the Continental Baking Company bought the Taggart Baking Company in 1925, they continued producing Wonder Bread and turned it into a national brand.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri), May 4, 1928, page 35.


Shortly after the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri introduced pre-sliced bread in July 1928,[i] Wonder Bread introduced a pre-sliced version which they sold side-by-side with unsliced bread for traditionalists.

Los Angeles Times (California), April 22, 1930, page 27.
 Wonder-Cut Bread is made exactly as is regular Wonder Bread.  The same fine ingredients.  The same slo-baking process.  All we do is slice it for women who prefer ready-to-use bread.

When sliced bread became more widespread, several bread brands began advertising each new advance in bread technology as “the best thing since sliced bread.”[ii]  However, I could not find a single example of an advertisement for Wonder Bread with the expression or anything like it, so they did not appear to have had a hand in coining or popularizing the expression. 

By the 1960s, Wonder Bread was one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous American brands.  Together with its other products, Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Ho Hos, and Hostess Cupcakes and Fruit Pies, the Continental Baking Company built a nationwide baking empire. 

The cool name and colorful logo may have played a role in its success.  Wonder Bread’s official history claims that its name and logo were inspired by balloon races in its hometown:

With a name inspired by the “wonder” of the International Balloon Race at the Indianapolis Speedway, Wonder Bread soon became a common sight in kitchens across America.

But the official story has a couple issues.  First, the Indianapolis Speedway never hosted the “International Balloon Race,” and second, the story about the name does not account for all of the other products called “Wonder Something-or-other” or all of the bread and flour products called “Wonder Bread,” “Wonder Flour” and “Wonder Bread Flour.”

National and International Balloon Races

In 1906, millionaire playboy, businessman, sportsman and owner of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., sponsored the first Gordon Bennet Cup balloon race.  The race, held annually from 1906 through 1939 (except for a seven-year hiatus for World War I) was generally referred to in the press as the International Balloon Race. 

In 1907 and 1908, political cartoons depicted the presidential campaign as a National Balloon Race.

A cartoon in 1907 showed the leading contenders vying for the title:

Journal Gazette (Mattoon, Illinois), October 24, 1907, page 1.

In 1908, a cartoon projected the winner – William Howard Taft:

Daily Scioto Gazette (Chillicothe Ohio), September 1, 1908, page 5.

In June of 1909, the Aero Club of America organized the first actual National Championship Balloon Race, to be held at the Indianapolis Speedway.  Images of the 1909 event illustrate how the event could have inspired Wonder Bread’s balloon logo design.

The Indianapolis News (Indiana), May 24, 1909, page 10.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri), June 7, 1909, page 9.
Aeronautics, Volume 5, Number 1, July 1909, page 22.

The Indianapolis Speedway also hosted the second annual National Balloon Race in 1910.  The following nine annual National Balloon Races were held in Kansas City, St. Louis, Oklahoma, and Birmingham, Alabama.

So why the eleven-year delay between the National Balloon Races in Indianapolis and the new Wonder Bread logo of 1921?  It is possible, I suppose, that the owner, or whoever was responsible for the design, could have had fond memories of the event. 

It is also possible that the new logo was designed in 1920, in anticipation of the International Balloon Race slated to take place at the Speedway in October of that year – until it was cancelled for want of gas. 

The Call-Leader (Ellwood, Indiana), August 21, 1920, page 6.

Indianapolis. – Plans for national and international balloon races scheduled to start from the Indianapolis motor speedway in September and October came to a dead halt when J. Dorsey Forrest, general manager of the Citizens’ Gas company, notified the speedway authorities that his company could not supply gas to inflate the balloons.  The critical condition of fuel supply is Mr. Forrest’s reason for refusal.  He declared that such a use of gas at this time, in his opinion, would be “criminal.”

The Jasper Weekly Courier (Jasper, Indiana), August 20, 1920, page 6.

The races were eventually moved to Birmingham, Alabama.

The National Balloon Race returned to Indianapolis again in 1923, two years after Wonder Bread’s balloon logo made its debut.  But the return was marred by tragedy when the United States Navy’s entry disappeared in Lake Michigan and its two pilots, Lieutenants L. J. Roth and Telford B. Null, died.

The Muncie Evening Press (Muncie, Indiana), July 10, 1923, page 1.

Wonder Bread’s luck was much better.
But whether the logo’s design was based on eleven-year old memories of the National Balloon Races of 1909 and 1910 or the cancelled International Balloon Race of 1920, the story about the origin of the Wonder Bread’s logo generally makes sense.

The story about the origin of its name is less convincing. 

“Wonder” Trademarks

Balloon races were certainly a “wonder” to behold, but “wonder” was also a common word in trademarks for any number of products throughout the years and decades before 1921:

Los Angeles Herald (California), March 17, 1907, page 81.

Princeton Union (Princeton, Minnesota), June 11, 1909, page 6.

The Ranch (Seattle, Washington), March 15, 1910, page 4.

Montpelier Examiner (Vermont), April 24, 1914, page 4.

Rogue River Courier (Grants Pass, Oregon), September 12, 1917, page 4.

And more specifically, “Wonder Bread,” “Wonder Flour” and “Wonder Bread Flour” were available in markets throughout the United States for nearly three decades before Taggart’s Wonder Bread hit the shelves of Indianapolis in 1921.

Wonder Bread – Wonder Flour

In the mid-1890s, “White Wonder Flour” was available in Northern New York and in Washington DC.

Hammond Advertiser (Hammond, New York), March 15, 1894, page 2.
Evening Star (Washington DC), November 2, 1894, page 8.

In the late-1890s, you could get “wonder bread,” and “wonder flour” and “wonder bread flour” in Western New York:

Don’t you know that Wonder bread remains fresh longer than other bread?

Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, New York), January 3, 1896, page 11.

- Children cry for it, Wonder Bread.
- Don’t be foolish. Buy Wonder flour.
- Is your bread always good?  If not try Wonder Flour.
- Wonder Flour is a good thing. Rush it along.

Westfield Republican (Westfield, New York), October 21, 1896, page 5.

- In everybody’s mouth – Wonder bread.
- A pointer for you!  Use Wonder flour.

Westfield Republican (Westfield, New York), November 18, 1896, page 5.

It's Better to laugh than to cry;
It's better to live than to die.
It's better to dine on "Wonder" bread,
Than to eat the kind that's as heavy as lead.

 Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, New York), April 15, 1897, page 12.

Daily Palladium (Oswego, New York), May 27, 1898, page 8.
Wonder Bread Flour

The Lake Superior Mills of Superior, Wisconsin advertised “Wonder Flour” and “Wonder Bread” using the same poem used in Buffalo, New York a couple weeks later, suggesting a possible connection between the two:

It’s better to laugh, than to cry,
It’s better live, than to die,
It’s better to dine on Wonder bread,
Than to eat the kind that’s as heavy as lead.
Weekly Northwestern Miller (Minneapolis, Minnesota), Volume 43, April 2, 1897, page 518.

 Another advertisement from Wisconsin in 1897 used bullet points similar to those used in Buffalo in 1896, also suggesting a connection between the two.

Eau Claire Leader (Eau Claire, Wisconsin), November 5, 1897, page 5.

“White Wonder Flour” and “White Wonder Bread Flour” were advertised in Vermont in 1907 and 1908, and ads for “Wonder Bread Flour” appeared in Vermont in 1919:

The Barre Daily Times (Barre, Vermont), December 16, 1907, page 8.
 White Wonder Flour!

Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vermont), August 26, 1919, page 7.
 Omar Wonder Bread FLOUR

“Grandma’s Wonder Flour” and “Grandma’s Wonder Bread” was offered for sale in Tennessee from 1907 through 1917.

Nashville Globe (Nashville, Tennessee), November 24, 1911, page 5.
Grandma’s Wonder Flour
Grandma’s Wonder Bread

During World War I, a corn-based, wheat flour substitute was called a “Wonder-Flour” in Ohio:

Fulton County Tribune (Wauseon, Ohio), May 17, 1918, page 11.

“Wonder Bread Flour” was even advertised in Indiana in 1919. 

Fort Wayne Sentinel, December 18, 1919, page 16.

So what’s behind all of the various “wonder” breads and flours?  There is no particular indication that most of them were related to one another.  It could be a coincidence, with each company using the common advertising word “Wonder” in its name.  Or perhaps the widespread use of “Wonder” in association with bread and flour was inspired by a “Little Wonder” that made a big splash in the flour milling business in the 1890s and early 1900s.

“Little Wonder” – Flour Milling Machine

In 1889, Dobson, Crawford & Company of Cleveland, Ohio introduced a new flour milling machine.  Described variously as a flour reel, scalper, grader and/or dresser, it was basically an industrial-scale sifter, used for sorting out varying grades of wheat.  They called it the “Little Wonder.”  

The American Miller (Chicago, Illinois), Volume 17, Number 6, June 1, 1889, page 400.
The American Miller (Chicago, Illinois), Volume 17, Number 6, June 1, 1889, page 400.

The “Little Wonder” appears to have been a very successful product.  It was offered for sale and in continuous, widespread use in the flour milling industry for several decades.

The Weekly Northwestern Miller (Minneapolis, Minnesota), Volume 30, Holiday Number, Christmas 1891, page xlix.

In 1893, the company that manufactured the “Little Wonder” crowed about its “conquest of Buffalo.”  Coincidentally (or perhaps not?), Buffalo is located in the middle of the region in western and northern New York where many of the early advertisements for “Wonder Flour” and “Wonder Bread” appeared.

The Roller Mill (Buffalo, New York), Volume 12, Number 2, August 1893, page 75.

The Roller Mill (Buffalo, New York), Volume 16, Number 7, January 1898, page 375.

The American Miller (Chicago, Illinois), Volume 36, Number 4, April 1, 1908, page 262.

 Monarch Flour Milling Machinery Catalogue No. 115, Muncy, Pennsylvania, Sprout, Waldron & Co., undated (before 1916[iii]), Page 76.

Makes You Wonder

The “Little Wonder” flour dresser reel may or may not have influenced the use of “Wonder Bread,” “Wonder Flour” and/or “Wonder Bread Flour” throughout the 1890s and into the 1910s.  And the use of “Wonder Bread,” “Wonder Flour” and/or “Wonder Bread Flour” from Washington DC to Vermont, and in and around the Great Lakes region, in New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin, may or may not have influenced the name Wonder Bread for bread produced by the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis, Indiana in 1921.

Or perhaps the “wonder” of the balloon races held periodically in Indianapolis influenced the word and the logo.

[ii] Ibid.
[iii] The catalogue is undated, but the preface notes their “nearly fifty years’” experience, and the company was established in 1866, so the date would presumably be somewhere between 1910 and 1915.