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