During your lunch break at school, work or just on a lazy picnic day, there are few things better than grabbing a sandwich with your hands and taking a big bite. Whether it’s good old fashioned PB&J or our unique spin on the BLT, the possibilities are endless. And you have John Montagu, the Earl of– well–Sandwich, to thank for providing you with endless possibilities between two pieces of bread.
Sandwich, The Place
The word sandwich is actually derived from the Southeastern England province Sandwich, Kent. Sandwich can be pretty literally translated to mean a sandy place, sand-, where trade and market occur, -wich. Today, Sandwich is a small town with a population of fewer than 5,000 people, known for its two golf courses, Royal St. George and Prince’s as well as the presence of a few buildings that lasted through medieval times, but back to the place’s connection to everyone’s favorite lunchtime staple.
An Earl-y Start
John Montagu, the man who would eventually be credited with inventing the sandwich, was born in 1718. Montagu lost his father, Edward Montagu, at the age of four and ascended to the rank of Earl of Sandwich at the age of 11 in 1729.
While we across the pond may know Montagu as the inventor of the sandwich, the earl also had a pretty illustrious political career, starting with his joining the House of Lords in 1739 after getting an education at Eton and Trinity Colleges. Montagu would go on to be involved in several major movements in England’s government history such as serving as a Commissioner of the Admiralty under First Lord, the Duke of Bedford.
During his lengthy career, Montagu served as a Colonel to the British Army during the Jacobite Uprising, Postmaster General, Ambassador to the Dutch Republic and Secretary of State for the Northern Department. Montagu was also commissioner of the British Navy during the American Revolutionary War before retiring in 1782, a year after Britain surrendered during the Battle of Yorktown.
Double Bread for a Double Life
Though he held a title and built a distinguished career, the Earl of Sandwich was not without vices. Montagu was part of the infamous Hellfire Club helmed by Sir Francis Dashwood, of which Benjamin Franklin and other political notables were also rumored to have been members. This Hellfire Club could widely be considered an early example of a gentleman’s club, where members engaged in pagan religious practices, drinking, feasting and sexual activity that would have been considered deviant in their regular lives.
Montagu was also rumored to have had a penchant for gambling, which is also where the famed rumor of his creation of the sandwich originated. Montagu was said to have so much trouble tearing himself away from the gambling table, that he’d ask servants for slices of meat between two slices of bread–something that was easy to eat with one hand, so the other was free to continue placing bets. A French author, Pierre-Jean Grosley is believed to have captured the moment that the first ever sandwich was consumed and popularized n his book A Tour To London, Or, New Observations on England and its Inhabitants saying,
“A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a piece of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London; it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.”
The snack caught on and Montagu’s friends and associates were said to ask for “the same as sandwich” leading to the word “sandwich” becoming ubiquitous. Some debate exists around the origin of Montagu’s original sandwich request. While the prevailing rumor says that Montagu’s prolific gambling habit gave way to the invention, others claim that it was his dedication to his work as a naval administrator that kept him glued to his desk, forcing him to request the meat and bread combo from his staff. Whichever you believe, you owe your next club sandwich to Montagu’s refusal to get up and get a plate.
But did Montagu really invent the sandwich?
While the sandwich may be forever tied to Montagu’s name and the province over which he presided, he is hardly the first person to have the idea to place different fillings between two pieces of bread. In fact, Montagu may have been inspired by mezze platters, which were popular in the Mediterranean, which featured an array of hors d’oeuvres including hummus, olives and various meats, which would then be arranged between pieces of bread. Even before then, the Jewish korech, which consists of herbs and matzo bread, and has been consumed since around 110 BC, may predate Montagu’s as the first version of the sandwich we eat today.
Though the sandwich came en vogue in England during the pre Revolutionary War years, Americans wouldn’t learn about the convenient meal until the early 19th century. But once the sandwich hit the states, its popularity spread (no pun intended) quickly. Sandwiches were filled with everything including cheese, fruit and shellfish and all people, regardless of age or class chowed down on them. Many things are tagged as being the best thing since sliced bread, but sandwiches might be the best thing before sliced bread, since their rise to popularity preceded Gustav Papendick’s patented sliced and packaged bread by nearly 200 years.
A sandwich for everyone
Today, sandwiches come in all shapes and sizes from submarine sandwiches, or hoagies, to pita sandwiches and, my personal favorite, reubens. Currently, the world’s favorite sandwich is a grilled cheese according to Food Management Magazine (*wink wink* maybe that’ll be our next Hackstory) and kids love sandwiches with the food staple having a 97 percent penetration on kids’ menus.
So the next time you order a sammie on the go, or wait in line at Subway praying that this will finally be the day they get your order right, raise a glass (or piece of bread, or even sandwich wrapper) to John Montagu, the Duke, and inventor, of Sandwich.