Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ephemeral city: Wonder Bread wrapper

Wonder Bread in 1929: It's Slo-Baked.

A recent renovation at my house had me demolishing the original tile floors and the plaster-and-lath walls in an upstairs bathroom. The house was built in 1929, and I reasoned the multicolored wad of wax paper I pulled from under the floorboards had been crumpled and tossed there that year.

Careful smoothing of the artifact's brittle edges revealed a cultural icon of 20th century American food branding. A little research confirmed the wrapper's design dated to the 1920s:

Detail from a 1926 newspaper advertisement.

Fine print caught my eye –  "Continental Baking Company/Campbell Bakeries" – and led to the discovery that my wrapper most likely originated at the corner of 30th and Troost.

The Campbell Baking Company already operated in Des Moines and Wichita when it built Kansas City headquarters at that corner in 1915. Years before Wonder Bread or the Continental Baking Company, Campbell baked Merit Bread and the Troost plant looked like this:

Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

By the Twenties the U.S. baking industry had already established itself as "the white-flour industrial complex," in the words of author Michael Pollan in his 2013 book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. (A result, Pollan says, of "the advent of the roller mill and commercial yeast and mechanized baking.")

A 1922 Kansas City Star advertisement for Campbell's Merit Bread promoted convenience: You cannot afford to bake your own bread, Mrs. Housewife, when you can buy this bread on the 5-cents-a-loaf basis.

That same year Campbell expanded its plant and became part of the United Bakeries Corporation, which in 1924 was swallowed by the Continental Baking Corporation. Campbell retained its name as the local unit of the larger corporation, but a year later became Campbell-Taggart in a merger with the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis.

Four years earlier, reportedly inspired by colorful balloons at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Andrew Taggart had created a new product: Taggart's Wonder Bread – The Bigger, Better Taggart Loaf. You Will Know It by the Wonder Wrapper. In 1925, Wonder Bread (and Hostess Cakes) came to Kansas City and the Campbell-Taggart Company again expanded its plant at 30th and Troost.

In the summer of 1930, a new contraption from a St. Joseph inventor was added to the production line. Mrs. Housewife no longer needed her bread knife, and inventions of the future would be referred to ceaselessly as "the greatest thing since sliced bread."

*     *     *

The Campbell of the Campbell Baking Company (and later Campbell-Taggart) was Winfield M. "Win" Campbell, a Michigan native who made Kansas City his home beginning in 1915 when he set up headquarters here. Or at least he made it one of his homes.

An enthusiastic flyer who owned his own plane, Campbell eventually collected several homes around North America in places like Miami, Beverly Hills and British Columbia. Here in town he and his wife were among the first residents of The Walnuts, the deco-era high-rise on a hill above the Country Club Plaza, buying and combining two units totaling 4,100 square feet. For a time he served as president of the American Bakers Association.

In 1939, after adding the Manor Bakery to his holdings and buying up a large chunk of real estate surrounding Manor's Westport plant, with plans to establish the Campbell-Taggart headquarters there on Pennsylvania Avenue, Campbell suddenly altered course. He moved the company to a location just outside Dallas. The new plant was just two blocks from the airport. Nevertheless, he gave up his home in The Walnuts.

Win Campbell died in 1943 at age 70 while vacationing with his wife in British Columbia.

*     *     *

Win Campbell's legacy in Kansas City can still be found at the corner of 30th and Troost. The old Campbell Baking Company building still stands there in its 1922 incarnation (with subsequent additions).

The old Campbell Baking Company plant today.

His name still adorns the Troost Avenue facade ...

... and the company is remembered at the 30th Street side entrance, as well.

And a little further east on 30th, the remnants of a latter-day successor linger, even though the Interstate Brands Corporation no longer exists and no baking takes place at this corner anymore.

Wonder Bread, of course, has made a recent comeback through Flowers Foods, a corporation based in Georgia. It's not baked in Kansas City any longer. The closest Flowers bakery is in Batesville, Arkansas, a six-hour truck haul away. Wonder does have its own Facebook page and Twitter account, however. As well as a list of ingredients that would have been unrecognizable in 1929.

Which brings me back to my artifact-wrapper, with its tattered edges and its 85-year-old flecks of mold. Perhaps from a meat loaf sandwich, packed by a Mrs. Housewife married to a plumber who was on his lunch break at my house, while installing water lines and drains for my lavender-colored sink, tub and toilet. I didn't demolish those.

*     *     *

Check out Wonder Bread, circa 1952:

*     *     *