The History of the Sandwich

Updated: Aug 26, 2019


An alternate version of this article originally appeared on Cheeserank.com, a now-defunct division of VaynerMedia.


Ahh, the sandwich.


Whether club or tuna salad, grilled cheese or Caprese, the deliciously melty confection known as the panini or the daintily triangular cucumber variety...everyone knows the ubiquitous sandwich.


Honestly, I wanted to start this article by listing off every type of sandwich there is. However, the variety is so infinite that not only would it take me forever, but I'd probably eat my keyboard in the process. (Also, the word "sandwich" becomes really, really weird after you've said it in your head 1800 times.) So, let's get cracking!


Most food historians agree that the idea of putting meat in between two slices of bread dates back to ancient times, likely due to the convenience and portability.


Around the 1st century B.C., a Jewish rabbi by the name of Hillel the Elder was kicking off the Passover tradition of eating the Paschal lamb combined with bitter herbs in between two pieces of unleavened bread. This remains the earliest known mention of a culinary creation involving meat between two slices of bread. Hillel meant for the bitter herbs to inspire one to bitterly contemplate one's sins and failures on which, no offense rabbi, I will take a hard pass.


Let's skip ahead a few years to the Middle Ages. When you weren't busy trying to dodge the plague or a war, you might have eaten a dinner of "trenchers": hollowed-out bread used as a makeshift plate for meat and vegetables. At the end of the meal, one could use the bread to sop up the sauce, but it was more commonly given to the poor. These days it's generally considered a bit rude if you try to give your used Panera bread bowl to someone else, alms or no.


However, the term "sandwich" used to describe such a thing is generally attributed to John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. I suppose "Montagu" sounded less like a food item and more like a sneeze, or a disease where your tongue turns green.


So how exactly did our buddy John come up with this brilliant idea? Well, as with most good stories, it begins with a wildly out-of-control gambling problem and, I'd wager, a LOT of booze.


One evening in 1762 the good Earl found himself at a gambling table, so entrenched in his cards that he stayed put for 24 straight hours. I'm going to sprint right past any questions on bathroom usage in such a situation. Instead, I'll assume that at some point in the proceedings, an underling realized he wouldn't get paid if the boss died of alcohol poisoning. Wisely, he suggested that the Earl get something to eat.


John sent off for his cook, with an order to make something he could chew on with one hand while still playing with the other. The inventive cook returned with beef stashed between two pieces of bread. The Earl was thrilled, but because Twitter didn't exist, he simply told all of his other high-society friends about it—and since the popular people determine what's cool: bada bing, bada boom, The Sandwich. (No thanks to the nameless cook, apparently.)


Want to live like John? You'll have to develop the crippling gambling addiction yourself, but if it's the sandwich you're after, head over to your nearest Earl of Sandwich location. Yes, it's a real restaurant, and yes, it was founded by Orlando Montagu, son of the 11th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu. (I'm sensing a pattern.)


The sandwich as it existed for Montagu isn't mentioned anywhere in America until popping up in a cookbook in 1815. Why such a gap?


Take a look at the year he popularized his iteration of the sandwich: 1762. That's rather close to...1776? Indeed, a scant 14 years later we had a bit of a disagreement with our British overlords.

Much like when you go through a nasty breakup and trash all the hoodies and ticket stubs (but not the jewelry, don't be ridiculous), Americans jettisoned any connection to their British heritage. That included the sandwich—partly because it remained such a fashionable foodstuff in England, but also because the name itself referenced the British peerage system that Americans were so determined to avoid.


Nonetheless, the charms of the sandwich eventually brought the colonists around, and ham sandwiches are mentioned more frequently in the mid to late 1800s. Even so, it wasn't until the 1920s and the invention of *actual* sliced bread that sandwiches took off in America. We do love our speed and convenience, don't we?


Now I don't know about you, but there's something glaringly absent from all these descriptions of old-timey sandwiches. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the reason you're all here and the reason I continue to want to live—CHEESE. Where is the CHEESE in all this?!

The French croque monsieur doesn't show up until 1910, and the classic grilled cheese sandwich only gained traction in the U.S. in the late 1920s. (Thanks, sliced white bread and Kraft processed cheese!)


That means that broadly speaking, we as a human species have lived without this culinary delight for the vast majority of our 100,000 years (or 2,016 years, depending on where you were educated) on earth.

When I daydream about time travel, I wonder what I might bring with me to stun the locals into a state of awe such that they crown me their queen. I thought the iPhone might be a good start.


Now I think all I'd have to do to earn the undying devotion of the legions is get in the kitchen and make a grilled cheese sandwich! Perhaps throw some tomato or bacon on there. Maybe if I happen to land in France, a combination of oozy fragrant Brie and thinly sliced pears on baguette would be apropos. America? Bacon egg and cheese, baby. Italy? Gooey burrata with tomatoes and basil on ciabatta.

Given that I do enjoy the occasional 24-hour gambling and drinking binge (as one does), perhaps I'll run into John Montagu at the craps table. If I do, I'll suggest he add some cheddar cheese and horseradish to that (roast) beef sandwich. Just call me the Countess of Sandwich.



Grace Everitt is a published writer & editor with nearly ten years of experience in both digital and print media. She is also the president of Grace Marketing Group, and spends her time bouncing between Florida and California.

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