This past week, Hostess Brands, Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Like many boomers, when Mister Boomer read the story, visions of youthful years consuming Twinkies, CupCakes, SnoBalls and SuzyQs came dancing across his brain-screen. But what really caught Mister B’s attention was that Wonder Bread was a part of the Hostess product line. Hostess, whose parent company was the Continental Baking Company at the time, acquired the brand when it purchased the Taggert Baking Company in 1925. That brought Wonder Bread to the national stage. Of the few products consumed daily that linked every child of the 1950s and ’60s, Wonder Bread would have to be near the top of the list.
Wonder Bread had been around for decades before it became a boomer-family favorite. The product was introduced by the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis, Indiana on May 21, 1921. Right from the start its packaging contained the familiar red, yellow and blue “balloons” as its trademark. The Taggert marketing director was inspired by the International Balloon Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and thought the “wonder” of the event would make a good identity for the new bread product.
Right about the time of World War II, a lot of the country’s food supply began to change as manufacturers sought methods to extend the shelf life of their products in order to expand their businesses across state lines. At the same time, a study by the government concluded that the American diet, still reeling from a decade of Depression living, was deficient in many essential nutrients. The government response was to require that bread be enriched.
Wonder, unlike “home-baked” bread, was made from a batter that cut down the amount and size of holes in the bread as it baked. Also unlike “regular” bread, which began to go stale and harden the next day, Wonder Bread had preservatives that extended its shelf life and made the bread — crust and all — soft for days on end. Marketers played up the softness and smooth texture as modern benefits that made their bread superior to “regular” loaves. More bread surface meant boomers’ moms could spread peanut butter and jelly with aplomb. Grilled cheese sandwiches could attain that golden-brown exterior while containing the orange-cheesy goodness between the slices, revealing its contents only along the sides, where melted festoons oozed in tempting anticipation.
In the 1950s, Wonder Bread expanded its advertising by sponsoring The Howdy Doody Show on TV. That’s when the phrase, “Builds strong bodies eight ways” was coined. The eight ways referred to the number of nutrient enrichments that were added to the bread. By the 1960s, the number of added nutrients was increased, so the slogan, which had been around for a decade, was altered to “Helps build strong bodies 12 ways.”
Mister Boomer’s family ate a lot of Wonder Bread: from plain sandwiches of boiled ham or olive loaf to peanut butter and banana with a drizzle of honey for Mister B; his sister’s fried bologna sandwiches to his father’s penchant for folding the soft slices and dipping them in whatever leftover grease there was in the pan from the family dinner. He recalls trips to the corner grocery store to get bread for the family; as chronicled in earlier posts, a child could walk into a store without having any money because the store kept a running family tab. Mister B’s father would stop in once a month to settle the tab. Mister B would go and grab a loaf of Wonder from the shelf, or its main competitor in his area, Sunbeam. In those early years, plastic wrappers weren’t yet being used. Instead, the Wonder loaf came packed in a white waxed paper sleeve that was folded and sealed like a gift box on either end. Blazoned across each long side was the Wonder logo with its red, yellow and blue balloons and marketing tag line on building strong bodies. It wouldn’t be until 1965 that the government mandated ingredient lists on labels of all products destined for interstate commerce, and 1990 before nutritional content was required on packaging.
Wonder Bread had another unique property: when squeezed into balls, it could bounce. Like many boomers of their age, Mister B and his brother could not resist testing the plasticity of the Wonder Bread several times per week. The soft texture lent itself to a boy’s pinch. Once a specimen had been acquired, it could be deftly rolled between the fingers to form a small, dense, white ball of baked Wonder dough. Then the balls could be bounced on the table top, the boys counting the bounces like skips of a stone across a lake. The little bread pellets were also perfect for tossing to the family dog. Waiting patiently by the dining room table, the dog sat ready to snap at the air to consume any doughy spheres entering his field of vision. As soon as Mister B’s mom saw the commotion, she’d admonish the brothers to stop playing with their food, much to the dog’s disappointment. A day or two later, the scenario would play out all over again.
By the time Mister B left his parents’ house in the 1970s, his mandated Wonder Bread habit was left behind. Unlike Hostess snack cakes, which he continued to purchase and consume for another decade, Wonder Bread remained a product of his boomer youth. The bread was synonymous with the era for many of us, even to the point of derision as phrases such as “white-bread” were conjured to define the bland sameness of boomer-era Caucasians.
What memories of Wonder Bread bounce into your minds’ eyes, boomers?