The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is such an ubiquitous part American childhood that most everyone thinks it’s been around nearly forever. In fact, it took quite awhile after all the necessary ingredients were invented for someone to put them together, and several more decades before it became popular. In fact, there are people alive today in America who grew up in a world where the PB&J sandwich simply wasn’t well-known at all.
Let’s start with the ingredients. Bread, of course, has been eaten for tens of thousands of years. However, pre-sliced bread, which made PB&Js a convenient task, wasn’t available until the early 1900s, when a man named Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa invented a device to automate this process.
He first built a prototype of his bread slicer in 1912, which didn’t interest bakers he showed it to as it was thought that no one would want their bread pre-sliced. Unfortunately, Rohwedder’s blueprints and machine were destroyed in a fire in 1917.
After that he struggled to obtain funding to begin again on his machine owing to the lack of interest. The primary concern was the reduction in shelf life of the bread. Even if it was reasonably well packaged, it still became stale faster than well packaged whole loaves.
Finally, in 1927, Rohwedder was able to re-build the machine and produce a model ready to use in an actual bakery, soon to be advertised as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped,” which later morphed into “the greatest thing since sliced bread” when describing various other products.
Rohwedder got around part of the staleness problem by wrapping the thinly sliced loaves in wax paper directly after slicing was complete. Apparently it was good enough since pre-sliced bread became a hit and within a decade people who had access to pre-sliced bread were eating more bread per person than before. This led to more experimenting with various new spreads to put on the now commonly thin bread slices.
As for jelly, which in the case of the peanut butter sandwich could mean jelly, jam, or other fruit preserves, that’s been around for a long time too, going back at least 2000 years.
Despite this lengthy history, for the purposes of this article, one Mr. Welch developed Grapelade from Concord grapes in 1918, which proved to be extremely popular among the troops during World War I. When they got back from the war, they spread the practice of using it on bread.
Peanut butter has actually been around since about 1000 BC, having been used by the Ancient Incas. However, peanut butter more or less as we know it today wasn’t popularized until the 1893 World Fair. In the early 1900s, peanut butter made frequent appearances in tea rooms across the nation where it was billed as a dish for rich people. Back then, it was paired with such crowd-winning favorites as cucumbers, cheese, celery, and crackers.
With all the ingredients around so long, it might surprise you to know that first reference to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich didn’t happen until 1901, with this first mentioned in the Boston Cooking-School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics, written by Julia Davis Chandler: “For variety, some day try making little sandwiches, or bread fingers, of three very thin layers of bread and two of filling, one of peanut paste, whatever brand you prefer, and currant or crab-apple jelly for the other.”
Peanut butter being more available to the masses didn’t happen until the 1920s and 1930s, shortly after Grapelade had become popular and pre-sliced bread was all the rage. It was at this point that another major PB&J breakthrough happened. Commercial brands of ultra-creamy peanut butter were developed, such as Skippy and Peter Pan.
With the Great Depression, peanut butter on bread became a staple in many American households because it provided a hearty, filling meal with a cheaper-than-meat substitute for protein. No doubt some at this point were happily creating PB&J sandwiches, but the real surge in popularity was yet to come.
This brings us to WWII. Grapelade’s popularity with the troops paved the way for jelly to be included in the soldiers’ rations during this war as well. Along with the jelly was the trusty high-protein peanut butter that had proved so useful during the Great Depression, and, of course, pre-sliced bread. This led to the perfect combination. Perhaps they had heard of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before, or perhaps it was simply a natural inclination to combine these three staple ingredients in their rations, but before long the peanut butter and jelly sandwich became a popular meal among United States soldiers.
When soldiers arrived home from the war, peanut butter and jelly sales skyrocketed. It was an instant hit with just about everyone. Kids loved how good it tasted, parents loved how easy it was to make, and college students liked that it was cheap. Since then, this sandwich has become a “traditional” American favorite.
In the end, despite all the needed ingredients having been around for millennia in some form or another, America’s favorite sandwich seems to have only been around for just over a century, and has only been popular for about 60-70 years.