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.
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.
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!