The Surprisingly Short History of the Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

peanut-butter-and-jellyThe peanut butter and jelly sandwich is such a staple of American childhood these days that it seems like it’s been around, well, forever. In fact, it took a surprisingly long time after all the necessary ingredients were invented for someone to put them together, and several decades more before doing this 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. *gasp*

First, let’s start with the ingredients. Bread, of course, is an ancient food that has been eaten for tens of thousands of years. However, pre-sliced bread—which would make PB&J making a convenient task—didn’t come about 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.

From there, 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/best 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 as pre-sliced bread was a hit and within a decade people who had access to pre-sliced bread were eating more bread per person than before and began 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 (see the difference between these here)—that’s been around for a long time too, going all the way back to at least the first century, mentioned in Of Culinary Matters by Marcus Gavius Apicius.

Despite this lengthy history, for the purposes of this article, one Mr. Welch is the man to pay attention to here. He 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 much longer than you probably think, and was not invented by George Washington Carver, with the first reference of it going back several hundred years before Carver, first created by the Incas and Aztecs. However, peanut butter more or less as we know it today was popularized at 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 favourites as cucumbers, cheese, celery, and crackers.

With all the ingredients around so long, it might surprise you that the first known 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.

At that point, however, peanut butter was still considered a “high end” food and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were not a commonly eaten food item.

Peanut butter being more available to the masses occurred in 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.  The perfect storm.

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 favourite. (That isn’t to say that PB&Js aren’t enjoyed across the globe, but it’s certainly a bigger hit in the United States than in most other countries.)

In the end, despite all the needed ingredients having been around for millenia in some form or another, America’s favourite sandwich seems to have only been around for just over a century, and has only been popular for about 60-70 years. Who knew?

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Bonus Facts:

  • In order to keep the bread from getting soggy from jelly over night or throughout the day, put peanut butter on both slices of bread and then put jelly inbetween.  Another PB&J pro-tip: toast the bread first; then add peanut butter to both sides with jelly in the middle; place the slices together and allow the peanut butter time to melt a little; then eat it while it’s still warm.  You’re welcome. 😉
  • The average American eats 2500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before they graduate from high school.
  • Grape jelly is still a favourite for PB&Js in the US, with strawberry jelly coming in close second.
  • In many other countries, “jelly” refers to “Jell-o.” Not exactly the same thing.
  • Americans eat about 700 million pounds of peanut butter every year.
  • Soldiers in World War II used to call peanut butter “monkey butter.”
  • Peanut butter was advertised by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg as a great, nutritious spread that was high in protein and perfect for people without teeth.
  • In Australia, there’s peanut butter and “American style” peanut butter for sale. The difference is that the American style stuff has a lot of extra sugar in it.
  • Peanuts are not actually nuts—they are classified as legumes, and they are grown underground.
  • The increased popularity of PB&Js led to several other inventions. One of these was Goober—the Smuckers jars filled with peanut butter and jelly swirled together (why buy two jars when you can buy one?). The product started appearing in grocery stores in 1968 and is still popular today. In addition, Smuckers purchased the right to the invention “Uncrustables” in 1999, which means hungry individuals have to go to no effort to get a sandwich. These are pre-packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches without the crust and featuring a long shelf-life.
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  • Peanuts have been eaten for thousands of years, yet the number of peanut allergies has increase massively worldwide over the past 60 years. Also growing in popularity over the past 60 years is commercially produced peanut butter, and peanut allergies appear about 20 years after it become a regularly eaten food.

    Correlation does not prove causation, but it’s one hell of a coincidence for that to happen if it’s complete unrelated to the rise in allergies in every country that starts eating it.

    • Have you ever thought that people with peanut allergies back then simply died, and now they live and pass that on to their children?

      • Shhh… you’re ruining a perfectly good tin-hat conspiracy theory.

      • Peanut butter is just the best food! It can go with basically everything!!! Plus, it’s so fast! Ever ran to a class with a jar of that?

  • I was surprised to learn PB@J sandwiches were popular since WW2. I recall a 1960’s movie called “One, two, three” where Arlene Frances’ character remarks to James Cagney that their children miss peanut butter sandwiches (no mention of jelly) while they are abroad. Also, a peanut butter sandwich (again no jelly) was also mentioned in another 60’s movie whose title I do not recall. One would think that the PB@J would be more popular and that the script writers would have used it instead of just peanut butter.

    • I don’t find it weird at all that some movies from the 60s would mention a peanut butter sandwich but not PB&J. Not everybody likes PB&J! That average 2500 PB&J sandwiches that the average American eats before graduating from high school? My number would be approaching zero! It is quite possible to eat a plain peanut butter sandwich, preferably on whole wheat.