As far back as there have been permanent human settlements, and the earliest breads, there has been a need to store bread to keep it fresh. The human solution for storing all types of things has always been to create a container of some kind — and so it was with bread. Somewhere down the line somebody came up with the idea to make a box that bread could be placed in; the box needed to be enclosed to keep out pests, yet contain enough air circulation that condensation would not form and, therefore, the bread could resist mold.
Breadboxes in the 1700s were made of pottery or wood. In the early part of this country’s history, wood became the choice of materials for the boxes. New materials such as aluminum, stamped steel and the first plastics started arriving in the 1920s and ’30s, so by the time the Boomer Age arrived after World War II, breadboxes had experienced a long history with nary a change in its basic configuration other than its manufacturing material.
Looking back, one might imagine the post-war 1950s and ’60s — prime-time boomer years — as the culmination of the breadbox’s heyday. Every home had at least one, since it was considered as necessary as it was a couple of centuries earlier. Kitchen counter space, a luxury-added feature of the 1950s (before then the kitchen table served as counter space and work surface), now sported must-haves of the decade in the latest designs: toaster, blender, flour and sugar canisters, and a breadbox. Some of the more modern households added an electric coffee pot, too. “Bigger than a breadbox” became a well-known phrase of comparison measurement since it was common knowledge that a breadbox would be slightly larger than a loaf of bread.
Yet two things had changed when it came to the use of the breadbox for the parents of boomers: First, consistent, shelf-stable bread was able to be purchased from a grocery store instead of only at a bakery. Preservatives extended the viability of the product more than the few days’ lifespan of fresh bakery bread as far back as the 1920s and ’30s, but still the breadbox became the family repository for the baked staple. The War also had its effect on bread — and breadboxes. Since all metal was being rationed, breadbox manufacturers had little choice but to experiment with plastics or use traditional wood materials to make their products. Through it all, the breadbox survived.
The second change in the use of the breadbox is closely tied to the first. That is, since a majority of bread now came pre-packaged in stores, the question arose as to whether to remove the bread from the package before placing it into the bread box. Since most store-bought bread came sliced, it may have been more practical to leave it in the package, or it may have been the “modern age” mind-set of our boomer parents that separated their generation from that of their parents. In Mister Boomer’s house, the bread was always left in the package when stored inside the breadbox.
Every home in Mister B’s neighborhood had a breadbox on the kitchen counter. The homes of every school friend also possessed breadboxes. Some were made of wood with the word “bread” painted on the front, while others were plastic and sported decals of flowers or symmetrical designs. Still others were chrome or painted metal.
Mister B recalls two bread boxes in his boomer youth. The first was probably a hand-me-down from his grandmother. It was a sleek, stamped, chromed-metal rectangular box with rounded corners and a black, hard plastic base. The front of the box was a door that had a hinge on the bottom to allow it to open to the maximum space for loaf transfer. It was kept in its upright and locked position by a tear-drop shaped black plastic lever in the center of the front panel near the top, held in place by a single screw. On either side of the lever was an embossed decoration consisting of three or four vertical, rounded linear shapes that extended from the top about two inches down. A series of four small louvres were shaped out of the sides for ventilation. Inside, a smooth sheet of metal covered the plastic base, while the sides were unpolished gun-metal gray that revealed the spot welds that connected the side panels to the rear panel. For years this breadbox, taller than a loaf of Wonder bread by about half the height, sat to the right of the sink, next to a beige plastic clock radio. Then one day Mister B noticed it had surreptitiously been moved to a secondary, smaller counter, next to the flour and sugar canisters. There it remained from then on.
Mister Boomer cannot recall what happened to that Art Deco breadbox of his early youth. It could have been another instance of “out with the old, in with the new” when his parents replaced it with a stamped metal breadbox, painted white with a red front door. The metal was thin and dented easily, so through time, it exhibited chips, scratches and bent edges that would need adjusting every now and then just to close the door. Somewhere in the early days of the 1970s, the breadbox disappeared from the counter, never to return.
Ask a kid today what a breadbox is, and many will not know the answer. Though they are still being sold, breadboxes are no longer considered a mandatory accessory in the kitchen. How about it, boomers? Do you still keep your bread in a breadbox on a kitchen counter, and if so, did you purchase or inherit it?