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The mysterious advertisement first showed up in The Indianapolis Star on May 19, 1921.  Positioned above an eye-catching photo of Dr. William Osborn, inventor of the Self-Adjusting Rupture Appliance, the small display ad asked a cryptic question: “WONDER?  How often do you use this word every day?  Check yourself.”

In the unfortunate event that readers might think they should be checking themselves for ruptures, a follow-up advertisement ran two days later. Although this teaser shed no more light on either the product that was being promoted or the company that was selling it, readers were promised that a “real WONDER” would soon be unveiled, and that they “would never find a WONDER of a better kind.”

All of this wondering about the word “WONDER” finally ceased a few days later when the Taggart Baking Company ran a large advertisement in The Indianapolis Star announcing the arrival of its new Wonder Bread. The first loaves of Wonder Bread appeared on grocers’ shelves in the early morning hours of Tuesday, May 24, 1921;  the last loaves disappeared from shelves just a few weeks ago after Hostess shut down its bakeries on November 16, 2012.  Sandwiched between was a 91-year period during which Wonder Bread reigned as the most popular bread in the world.

Pictured to the right is the ad that ran in The Indianapolis Star on May 23, 1921, announcing the arrival of Taggart’s new Wonder Bread. Both the catchy name and the colorful packaging were conceived by Taggart’s in-house publicity wizard, Elmer Cline, who was inspired by the balloon races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Alexander Taggart was no stranger to the baking trade when he launched his best-selling bread in 1921.  A third-generation baker, he had taken over the reins of the family business from his father,  Alexander Sr., who had learned the trade at his own father’s bakery in the Isle of Man.  After immigrating to the U.S. shortly after the Civil War, the elder Taggart opened his first Indianapolis bakery in 1869, and a few years later joined with Burton Parrott to open the Parrott-Taggart Baking Company.

The duo’s baking business boomed in the bustling years following the Civil War, and in the 1890s, Taggart helped found the United States Baking Company, with the Pennsylvania street factory serving as the local branch.  The company merged with the fledging National Biscuit Company (aka Nabisco) around the turn of the century, although it continued to operate locally under the Parrott-Taggart name.

 

Taggart sold out his stock in the company in 1904, and founded Taggart Baking Company the following year with his brother, Joseph, and his son, Alexander. Within a few years, the company had grown into the largest bread bakery in the state, running 19 ovens daily with a capacity of 300,000 loaves per week. In addition to its growing bread business, Taggart Baking Company also made Jersey Butter Crackers. Designed to be eaten with oysters, Jersey Butter Crackers were strangely popular in landlocked central Indiana, although similar crackers had failed to gain favor in coastal cities.

Taggart Baking Company’s main factory was located at 18-28 North New Jersey Street, and its baked goods were sold at nine retail stores in Indianapolis.  The flagship store was located at 233-239 Massachusetts Avenue and featured a lunchroom where customers could enjoy sandwiches made with one of Taggart’s many varieties of bread.

In May 1913, Taggart announced plans to expand its business model to include the manufacture of “fancy cakes and sweet crackers.” The Mass Ave lunchroom, which had been hailed by The Indianapolis Star as “one of the oldest restaurants in Indianapolis,” would be shuttered to make way for a larger sales room, and the plant on New Jersey would be built up to seven stories.

The Parrott-Taggart Baking Company was located at 93-99 South Pennsylvania Street. The photo above left shows the plant when it was operating under the Nabisco banner. The Taggart Baking Company’s original New Jersey street plant is shown in the center, while a greatly expanded factory may be seen in the distance in the photograph on the far right.

In order to assuage consumer concerns about the cleanliness and safety of “factory-made” baked goods, everything in the new Taggart plant was painted a snowy white, including the ovens.  Machinery replaced human hands, even in the delicate work of icing the dainty cakes and pastries.  In a specially designed “icing room,” for example, cakes were suspended from a mechnical conveyer belt, dipped into troughs of icing, and then whisked away to the packaging area.

By 1920, however, consumers had grown increasingly comfortable with both the convenience and the taste of factory-made bread. Taggart Baking Company invested in state-of-the-art ovens and packaging machinery as it readied to launch Wonder Bread. While previous advertising campaigns had focused on the “homemade” taste of mass-manufactured bread, Taggart executives were now touting the fact that Wonder Bread was unlike anything that could ever be baked at home.

Weighing a pound and a half, the new Wonder Bread featured an even texture, soft crusts and a strange resilience that kept it from crumbling even when smeared with greasy peanut butter and grasped by toddlers’ hands. Sadly, Indianapolis enjoyed an all-too-brief run as the home of this miracle food.  Four years after it was introduced to Indianapolis residents, Wonder Bread became a national brand, when Taggart was purchased by Continental Baking Company.

Sales were sluggish at first, but then in 1930 Wonder Bread became America’s first sliced bread, inspiring the phrase “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

The Wonder Bread brand has been bought and sold several times since it was trademarked by Alexander Taggart in 1921. Now with the demise of its most recent owner, Hostess, collectors have been buying up old Wonder Bread items at the same frenzied pace that Hoosiers buy bread when an inch or two of snow is forecast.  But I believe that the rumors of Wonder Bread’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Maybe it’s the magic of the Christmas season or the feeling of relief from having survived the Mayan apocalypse, but I am confident that Wonder Bread will rise again. After all, It’s a Wonderful Loaf!

Prices for vintage Wonder Bread advertising rose dramatically in the weeks after Hostess shut down, but now are back to normal levels. Pictured clockwise from top left is a miniature loaf from the mid-1920s currently offered for $69. The orange and blue porcelain sign from the same era recently fetched $134. In early December, a buyer paid $251 for the red and white tin sign – five times what the same sign sans rust had fetched two months earlier. On November 18 – two days after the Hostess shutdown – a buyer beat out 16 other bidders to pay $565 for the tin sign on the bottom left. The same sign in similar condition sold last week on eBay for $241.

Although vintage Wonder Bread advertising is plentiful on eBay and in antique shops, items from Taggart Baking Company are difficult to track down. Cookie tins surface from time to time on eBay; the example above recently sold for $10. The only other Taggart pieces I’ve been able to find in all my years of searching are two glass lids that would have been used to cover cardboard boxes of crackers in a general store. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with the glass lids, but for now, they serve as display cases for various objet d’art in my home office.

15 responses to “Indianapolis Collected: It’s a Wonderful Loaf”

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    Will wish to stay with this blog! Grew up on Wonder Bread!

  2. Bitsy Taggart Fitzsimmons says:

    Oh, my! What a delightful thing to run across this morning!! Alexander Taggart was my great grandfather!! Now to print out and read this article in its entirety with my morning coffee and a toasted piece of Colonial bread.

  3. Sandra Jarvis says:

    I am so in love with the old fonts and advertisements. Thank you for posting these articles, it’s a breathe of fresh air.

  4. Ynez Taggart Kates says:

    My grandfather was Joseph Taggart who started the Joseph Taggart Baking Company. I have a beautiful – original photograph of the Joseph Taggart Baking Company with all the employees standing in front taken in the early 1900’s. We thank you for this interesting article.

    Joseph Taggart’s son, Richard was my father born in 1905.

    Ynez Taggart Kates

  5. Tiffany Benedict Berkson says:

    Thanks so much for sharing, Ynez! Would love to see your photo! Thanks for the sweet note!

  6. Ynez Taggart Kates says:

    Absolutely!

  7. Bitsy Taggart Fitzsimmons says:

    Hi Ynez…. my 2nd cousin, once removed!
    Would love to be in touch with you to help me fill in some gaps in the family tree. I believe we actually met 20 years ago at Rebecca’s wedding in St. Helena, CA. And, believe it or not, I have one of your father’s paintings!
    Best,
    Bitsy Taggart Fitzsimmons
    BitsFitz@aol.com

  8. Robin McCray (welch) says:

    Ynez It’s your old friend Robin, Eliott Jr Hi. Do you still play the guitar?

  9. Sean Gray says:

    I’m throwing this out there if anyone still reads this. I have a advertising coin with the home schedule of the 1912 Indianapolis Indians on one side, and SELL TAGGART’s BREAD “IT’S A SAFE HIT” on the other. Could anyone tell me if it is worth anything. How I came across it was my great grandfather owned a grocery in Bloomington, IN. and I’ve ended up with it thru belonging’s passed down.

  10. Bitsy Taggart Fitzsimmons says:

    Have no idea if it is worth anything, but I’d sure love to even see a picture of it! Taggart’s Bread was the beginning of the family business and started by my great-grandfather and his brother. My great-grandfather probably saw to it that the bread got to your great-grandfather’s grocery! Small world.

    Bitsy Taggart Fitzsimmons

  11. Mick Williams says:

    I lived east of Garfield Park, from 1946 to 1952. While a small boy, from time to time appeared in the skies small tethered dirigibles (blimps) in the shape of bread loaves. These advertising devices were perfect replicas of Wonder Bread loaves, white with the multi-colored circles inspired by the early balloon races at the Speedway. In those days every neighborhood grocery store had a breadbox out front, where deliverymen would deposit the loaves baked overnight, before the stores opened for the day’s business.

  12. Barb L. says:

    My great grandfather, David L. Osborne, and family rented rooms above the Parrot bakery at 188 1/2 E. Washington during the 1880’s. The family said the smell of baking bread and crackers was ‘wonder’-ful and the heat from the ovens kept them ‘toast’-y in the winter. The landlady at 188 1/2 was Mrs. Euphemia Miller.

  13. Anonymous says:

    5

  14. Karen says:

    Who remembers field trips to the Wonder Bread factory on Shadeland Avenue in grade school? Oh the smell of baking bread! I can still smell it when driving by the building even today.

  15. Jeffrey Reed says:

    As a 5 year -old, along with my fellow classmates at Mrs. Perry’s Kiddie Corral Kindergarten, we went on a field trip there as well. It was the 1959-60 school year. I remember the great smell too! We each received a miniature -sized loaf of Wonder bread to take home as well! Great memory! Glad that the Shadeland location is going strong and still providing jobs. Kiddie Corral was located in Lawrence. Karen, thanks for the reminder!

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