The Rise and Fall of Wonder Bread

Hostess Brands is dead. Gone bankrupt. Over 18,000 people will lose their jobs. Hostess specialised in foods which were heavily processed and incredibly unhealthy. One of their products was Wonder Bread.

Ninety-one years ago, in 1921, strange advertisements started appearing in the newspaper for weeks. One declares:

How often to you use this word every day?
— Check yourself

Then, in the middle of May, this rhyme appears:

You’ve wondered now for several days,
You’ve checked yourself in many ways,
The word, you know, you’ll not forget,
But the real WONDER is unknown yet.
Just remember this—you’ll never find
A WONDER of a better kind.

Finally, on May 21, 1921, the answer is revealed: Wonder Bread appears in the grocery stores.

When the Taggart Baking Co. had wanted to produce a new 1.5 pound loaf of bread, they turned to Elmer Cline, Vice-President for Marketing Strategy. While taking in the International Balloon Race at the Indianapolis Speedway, Cline was captivated by the scenes of hundreds of balloons creating a kaleidoscope of color across the Midwestern sky. 

In 1925 Continental Baking bought Taggart; Wonder Bread became a national brand. Cline’s distinctive logo—stylized versions of the balloons he saw over the speedway—took the nation by storm. The bread was on the rise.

Wonder Bread became the first sliced bread to be marketed nationally in 1930. The bread-slicing machine had been invented in Iowa in 1913, but it had taken years to make the system workable. It made for a great selling point and solved the problem of the soft and mushy bread being hard to slice by hand.

Back in the Middle Ages, white bread had been a status symbol. It cost money to refine flour, so peasants made do with wholewheat flour to make their bread. It was only aristocrats who could afford to buy white flour for their bread. White bread was a boast, a way of gloating.

With mechanization, white flour became more affordable and suddenly everyone could share in the luxury of white bread. The creation of Wonder Bread represents the moment when a luxury affordable only to a few finally became affordable to everyone.

Problem is, white bread isn’t good for you.

Turns out that all that extra refining takes out the very stuff that makes whole wheat bread healthy. We’d known this since the early nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that we would take it seriously.

In the 1930s white bread manufacturers were encouraged to add vitamins and minerals to their product to replace what the refining process took out. This became law in 1956. But it wasn’t enough to stop the decline of Wonder Bread in the face of a sustained attack from whole wheat bread.

To fight back, Wonder Bread ran TV spots where they stressed that they equaled—or exceeded—federal standards for bread nutrition. This from 1985:

In 1971, the Federal Trade Commission look set to take Wonder Bread to court for false advertising. While their advertisements had stressed the plusses of white bread, they neglected to mention the significant drawbacks in comparison to whole wheat bread (e.g. a lack of fiber). Wonder Bread lucked-out: the case never went to court.

The shift in Wonder Bread’s advertising campaign in the late 1960s is striking. Before whole wheat bread’s health benefits had become an issue, Wonder Bread was marketed as a healthy product for all the family.

After the 1960s the advertising becomes more defensive and subtle. In addition to advertisements which cheekily claim that Wonder Bread is as healthful as whole wheat bread, they ran ads which marketed it as a necessary evil for parents: it may not be as good as wholewheat bread, but at least you could get children to eat it.

Despite all this, Wonder Bread began its steady decline. Hostess Bakeries went into receivership in 2004, only to exit in 2009. Now, three years later, it’s gone back into bankruptcy. Hostess will sell its brands to the highest bidder.

Let’s face it, Wonder Bread was disgusting. A culinary obscenity that stunted the growth of palates across the USA for generations. An introduction to over-refined and heavily processed foods, it was the gateway to unhealthy lifestyles for so many. I’m glad it’s gone. It’s just a shame that someone will probably buy up the name and start selling it again soon.


Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on my old blog, The Bewildered Brit under the title “Wonder Bread: Marketing a Medieval Luxury in Modern America”. Leo Gong’s The Wonder Bread Cookbook (Berkeley, 2007) is a great resource for the history of Wonder Bread.

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About Richard

I am a writer who travels endlessly. Fascinated by how our lives are propelled forward by what's left behind, I thirst to know everything. I read, collect, gather, organise, list. Here are some of the things I read, see and experience. Please make yourself at home: drinks and pretzels will be served shortly. If you'd like to get in touch, I'd love to hear from you!

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