I’m pretty sure that the 18th century Earl of Sandwich, Lord John Montagu, would have been miffed to discover that despite his long and varied career as a statesman, during which he was Postmaster General, the First Lord of the Admiralty and Secretary of State for the Northern Department, he has been immortalized for something quite different… as the inventor of the sandwich!
The idea of using flatbreads with toppings or fillings has been around for thousands of years, particularly in the Middle East and Mediterranean countries. There are even records from 2200 BC of early forms of pizza in ancient Egypt in the guise of flatbread topped with dukkah spread.
So, why is it that the idea of two slices of bread with a filling was named after an Earl? The first time that the term “sandwich” was used was in a diary entry in 1762 written by Edward Gibbon. A few years later, Pierre-Jean Grosley wrote A Tour of London , after visiting London in 1765. It included what is now seen as the explanation for name of the sandwich:
“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 bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat (sic) 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.”
After studying at Eton and Cambridge University, the 4th Earl of Sandwich went on a Grand Tour of Europe, and even visited the Ottoman Empire , including parts of modern-day Greece, Turkey and Egypt. On his journey he probably encountered flatbreads with their various toppings.
A famously incessant gambler, legend has it that during a game he asked to be brought two slices of bread filled with meat so he could continue to play. It was such a convenient solution that soon others began ordering “a Sandwich!” So, while the Earl of Sandwich didn’t actually invent the sandwich, it appears he greatly influenced its popularity and it did, of course, take his name.
Nowadays the sandwich market is said to be worth over 20 billion dollars in the United States alone, and we are all familiar with such classics as the grilled cheese sandwich, BLT, club sandwich or even peanut butter and jelly. By the middle of the 19th century the term had become so common that it was used as a verb to describe being stuck between two people or things. Sandwiches became even more common when the commercial bread slicer was invented by the Iowa-born Otto Rohwedder in 1928.
Top image: Main: Portrait of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. ( Public domain ). Inset: A sandwich. Source: Mikhaylovskiy / Adobe Stock
By Cecilia Bogaard