Sandwich History

History of America’s Favorite Sandwiches

1st Century B.C. – The first recorded sandwich was by the famous rabbi, Hillel the Elder, who lived during the 1st century B.C.  He started the Passover custom of sandwiching a mixture of chopped nuts, apples, spices, and wine between two matzohs to eat with bitter herbs.  The filling between the matzahs served as a reminder of the suffering of the Jews before their deliverance from Egypt and represented the mortar used by the Jews in their forced labor of constructing Egyptian buildings.

Because he was the first known person to do this, and because of his influence and stature in Palestinian Judaism, this practice was added to the Seder and the Hillel Sandwich was named after him.

6th to 16th Century – During the Middle Ages, thick blocks of coarse stale bread called trenchers were used in place of plates.  Meats and other foods were piled on top of the bread to be eaten with their fingers and sometimes with the aid of knives.  The trenchers, thick and stale, absorbed the juice, the grease, and the sauces.  At the end of the meal, one either ate the trencher or, if hunger had been satisfied, tossed the gravy-soaked bread to their dogs or given as alms to less fortunate or poor human.

Alms were clothing, food, or money that is given to poor people.  In the past, people thought it was their religious duty to give alms to the poor.  Trenchers were clearly the forerunner of our open-face sandwiches.

16th and 17 Century – In Mark Morton’s well researched 2004 article Bread and Meat for God’s Sake, he wrote:

“What, then, were sandwiches called before they were sandwiches?  After combing through hundreds of texts, mostly plays, that were written long before the Earl of Sandwich was even born, a possible (through somewhat prosaic) answer emerges.  The sandwich appears to have been simply known as “bread and meat” or “bread and cheese.”  These two phrases are found throughout English drama from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  For example, in an anonymous late sixteenth-centry play called Love and Fortune, a young man pleads for “a peece of bread and meat for Gods sake.  Around the same time, in The Old Wives Tale by George Peele, a character confesses, “I tooke a peece of bread and cheese, and came my way.”  Shakespeare uses the phrase, too, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Nim announces, “I love not the humour of bread and cheese.”  A slightly later anonymous play, known as The Knave in Grain, includes a pedlar called a “bread and meat man” in its dramatic personate, and Thomas Heywood’s seventeenth-century version of The Rape of Lucrece includes a song made up of the cries of street pedlars, including, “Bread and – meat – bread – and meat.”  Dozens of other plays from the same era also make reference to “bread and meat” or “bread and cheese.”

1762 – The first written record of the word “sandwich” appeared in Edward Gibbons (1737-1794), English author, scholar, and historian, journal on November 24, 1762.  Gibbon recorded his surprise at seeing a score or two of the noblest and wealthiest in the land, seated in a noisy coffee-room, at little tables covered by small napkins, supping off cold meat or sandwiches, and finishing with strong punch and confused politics.

“I dined at the Cocoa Tree….That respectable body affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty of the first men in the kingdom….supping at little tables….upon a bit of cold meat, or a Sandwich.”

The Cocoa Tree, located at Pall Mall and St. James’s Street, was a fashionable gentlemen’s gaming club in London in the 18th century.Gaming houses in London were for the chosen few, where men of common tastes and of one class might meet together.  In 1746 the Cocoa-tree Club became the haunt of politicians, particularly Tories, who met there under the guise of taking chocolate in order to hatch political plots.  After 1750, only the more modest establishments survived, frequented by the public at large.  The most select chocolate houses became private clubs, strictly limited to gentlemen from the ranks of high society.

1762 – It is also said that the cooks at London’s Beef Steak Club, a gentlemen’s gaming club held at the Shakespeare Tavern, invented the first sandwich.

The sublime society of Beef-steaks’ was very exclusive, limited to 24 members.  The Prince of Wales became its 25th member.  They dined off beef-steaks accompanied by generous amounts of port and arrack-punch.  The members met at 5 o’clock on Saturday’s from November until the end of June.  Each member could also invite a friend.

John Montagu (1718-1792), the Fourth Earl of Sandwich:

He became First Lord of the Admiralty and was patron to Capt. James Cook (who explored New Zealand, Australia, Alaska, Hawaii, and Polynesia.).  Capt. Cook named the Hawaiian Islands after him, calling them the Sandwich Island. Montague Island, a large island at the entrance to Prince William Sound on the Gulf of Alaska, was also named by the famed Captain Cook.

Montagu was a hardened gambler and usually gambled for hours at a time at this restaurant, sometimes refusing to get up even for meals.  It is said that ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread.  Because Montagu also happened to be the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, others began to order “the same as Sandwich!”  The original sandwich was, in fact, a piece of salt beef between two slices of toasted bread.

John Montagu’s biographer, N. A. M. Rodger, points out in the book, The Insatiable Earl – A Life of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, that the sole source for giving Montagu credit for the invention of the sandwich, was gossip mentioned in a travel book by Grosley, and that at the period in question 1765, he was known to be very busy, and it is just as likely that it was for the purpose of eating at his desk.  The book states:

It remains to consider the circumstances of the invention of the sandwich, which modern works suppose to have been designed to sustain its creator through long nights at the gaming table.  The origin of this story seems to be a passage in Grosley’s Tour to London:

“A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game.  This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London: it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.”

Grosley’s book is a piece of travel literature. There is no supporting evidence for this piece of gossip, and it does not seem very likely that it has any foundation, especially as it refers to 1765, when Sandwich was a Cabinet minister and very busy.  There is no doubt, however, that he was the real author of the sandwich, in its original form using salt beef, of which he was very fond.  The alternative explanation is that he invented it to sustain himself at his desk, which seems plausible since we have ample evidence of the long hours he worked from an early start, in an age when dinner was the only substantial meal of the day, and the fashionable hour to dine was four o’clock.

1840 – The sandwich was introduced to America by Englishwoman Elizabeth Leslie (1787-1858).  In her cookbook, Directions for Cookery, she has a recipe for ham sandwiches that she suggested as a main dish:

Ham Sandwiches – Cut some thin slices of bread very neatly, having slightly buttered them; and, if your choose, spread on a very little mustard.  Have ready some very thin slices of cold boiled ham, and lay one between two slices of bread.  You may either roll them up, or lay them flat on the plates.  They are used at supper or at luncheon.

1900’s – The sandwich became very popular in the American diet when bakeries started selling presliced bread, thus making sandwiches very easy to create.  Sandwiches became an easy, portable meal for workers and school children alike.

To return to the main History Index Page, click HERE.

A Brief History of the Canfield Casino,
Atlas of Popular Culture in the Northeastern United States, The Spiedie – a “Tasty Morsel”, by John E. Harmon.
Beyond the Ice Cream Cone – The Whole Scoop on food at the 1904 World’s Fair, by Pamela J. Vaccaro, Enid Press, St. Louis, 2004.
Hoagie History, Wawa Food Markets.
I’ll Have What They’re Having – Legendary Local Cuisine, by Linda Stradley, published ThreeForks, Guilford, Connecticut, 2002.
Library of Congress Information Bulletin, Blondie Gets Married!, Library Exhibition Celebrates Work of Chic Young, June 2000, by Sara W. Duke.
Marie’s Melting Pot, Sicilian Style Cooking, by Marie Lupo Tusa, The Spielman Company, 1980.
Rare Bits – Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes, by Patricia Bunning Stevens, publined by Ohio University Press, 1998.
Rose V. Ferlita, About Rose, History of the Ferlita Bakery.
Seven Hundred Sandwiches, Florenece A. Cowles [1929]
The Camberley Brown Hotel, Fourth & Broadway, Louisville, KY.
The Ferlita Bakery, Centro Ybor.
The Food Chronology, by James Trager, published by Henry Holt and Company, 1995.
The Great Sandwich Book, by Anita Borghese, Rawson Associates Publishers, Inc., New York, 1978.
The Insatiable Earl, Fourth Earl of Sandwich 1718-1792, by N.A.M. Rodger, W.W. Norton, 1994
The New Orleans Cookbook, by Rima & Richard Collin, published by Alfred A. Knofp, 1975.
The Primal Cheeseburger – A Generous Helping of food History Served Up on a Bun, by Elisabeth Rozin, Penquin Books, 1994.
What’s a Spiedie?, Sam A. Lupo & Sons, Inc.
Whole foods Companion – A guide For Adventurous Cooks, Curious Shoppers & Lovers of Natural Foods, by Dianne Onstad, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1996.
World’s Greatest Peanut Butter Cookbook, by Linda Romanelli Leahy with Jack Maguire, Villard Books, New York, 1994.
Ybor City State Museum: A Statement About Heritage, by Richard L. Servis Jr., The Carefree Traveler Magazine.


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Comments and Reviews

7 Responses to “Sandwich History”

  1. ainsley

    you spelled matzah wrong

    • Linda Stradley

      Thank you for letting me know of my error. I made the change of spelling. Thank you again.

  2. Chloe

    You spelled the Montagu in John Montagu wrong, you put Montague.
    John Montague is an Irish poet. John Montagu is the 4th Earl of the sandwich.

    • Linda Stradley

      You are right! Thank you for letting me know of my error. I made the correction.

  3. Sam

    What is “Palestinian Judaism”?
    Do you mean Judaism?

    The story you mention with Hillel happened when the place was still called Judea, before the Romans named it “Palestine”

  4. Catherine

    How exactly was the sandwich made in 1762?


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