At the end of the turbulent, transformative nineteenth century, New York had become a manufacturing dynamo, powered by a constant inflow of foreign workers. The city’s ethnic and cultural character had always been varied, but decades of flux had left it fragmented, with working- and middle- and upper-class New Yorkers occupying virtually separate and mutually hostile New Yorks. The city’s labor movement, no longer in its infancy, pushed frank acknowledgment of class tensions–and radical solutions–into the public discourse. New York culture–diverse, exploitative, and intellectually heated–was increasingly perceived as gestating a latent power to destroy the social order.
Poor and better-off New Yorkers had become so well insulated from each other that it took the work of innovative journalists to introduce those above the poverty line to the reality that existed within a few blocks of their own front doors. New York’s investigative journalism had matured from the early, sensationalist penny papers of the 1830s with coverage of the Tammany scandal of the 1870s. Jacob Riis’s seminal How the Other Half Lives (1890) inspired a generation of New York reformers. By the turn of the twentieth century, New York magazines like Collier’s Weekly, Munsey’s Magazine, and McClure’s Magazine, which featured thoughtful investigative reporting and social commentary, were staple reading materials of the city’s middle class.
One of the most widely-discussed scandals early twentieth-century journalists and Pure Food reformers documented were the abominable working conditions New York bakery workers endured. At the November 1922 hearings convened by the New York State Factory Investigating Committee, a public health doctor confirmed that nearly 100 percent of the city’s bakery workers showed signs of tuberculosis, bronchitis, and other lung infections–due in large part to brutish working conditions, including a lethal lack of ventilation.
The exposés were intended to awaken sympathy for the exploited, endangered bakery workers, but readers fixated, anxiously, on the horrors of a diseased (and dissident) proletariat stirring drippings from the tenement ceiling into the rising dough.
Industrial bread, produced in New York factories like Ward’s served as a salve for some of those anxieties. In their two classically-designed, fully-automated “Snow-White Temple of Cleanliness,” Ward’s produced bread they touted as untouched by human hands (a novel attribute for bread). The company also emphasized the rigorous health and social standards to which their employees were held; skeptical or curious visitors were invited to tour their spotless, germ-free facilities.
The new bread factories also hired professional advertising agencies, which by the turn of the century had assumed their modern form as putative psychological manipulators of the American housewife. In this case, they assured the lady of the house that the reward of family love wouldn’t come from slaving over a hot stove like some sweaty peasant, but from choosing a modern, convenient, disease-free loaf to feed her family well. Middle-class housewives had the leisure or the staff to bake at home and many, of course, did. But a subtle shift in the role of the housewife–from food producer to curator of the family table–began to take hold around the turn of the twentieth century, and in this modern era of sanitary reform, germ-consciousness took the central place it would never really abandon in the notional psyche of the American housewife. The bestselling domestic science texts of the period popularized a hygiene-focused framework that conceptually supported the choice of industrial bread. For busy, servantless middle-class women, who may have found breadmaking an irritating chore for years, the gospel of germs provided a suitable rationale for turning the whole process over to the professionals.
Aesthetically, the product spoke for itself. Its streamlined shape, dazzling white color, and rigid uniformity, industrial bread embodied purity, predictability, and central control by a prosperous, technology-friendly authority in a dirty and confusing world.
With its smooth texture and intensely white color, the bread below would have soothed the early-twentieth century psyche nicely, and its thin, flexible crust would have said “fresh” to buyers of factory-wrapped loaves. Michelle’s recipe delivers all that, and it’s good, too. Recipe transcribed verbatim, including Michelle’s notes, below. If you use a Pullman pan, your bread will have a pleasing geometric quality, like a Bauhaus apartment block, or a streamlined train gliding at rocket speed into the promise of a future of better living through science.
Very White Bread
via Brown Eyed Baker
4½ teaspoons instant yeast (two 0.25-ounce packets)
1¾ cup + 2⅔ cups warm water, divided
1¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
9 to 10 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, for brushing
- In the bowl of a mixer, stir to dissolve the yeast in ¾ cup of the warm water, and let sit for 5 minutes. Add the remaining 2⅔ cups water, sugar, salt, room temperature butter, and 5 cups of the flour and stir to combine.
- Using a dough hook, mix on low speed and gradually add the remaining flour until the dough is soft and tacky, but not sticky (you may not need to use all of the flour). Continue to knead until a soft ball of dough forms and clears the sides of the bowl, about 7 to 10 minutes.
- Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl and turn it over so it is completely coated. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a draft-free place to rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- Turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured surface. Gently press it all over to remove any air pockets. Divide the dough in two and, working with one piece at a time, gently pat it into a 9×12-inch rectangle. Roll up the rectangle, starting on the short end, into a very tight cylinder. Pinch to seal the seams and the ends, tuck the ends of the roll until the bread, and place into greased 9-inch loaf pans. Cover the loaves loosely and place in a draft-free area until doubled in size, 30 to 45 minutes.
- Position an oven rack on the lowest setting and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- Brush the loaves with some of the melted butter. Bake the loaves for 30 to 35 minutes, rotating halfway through, until golden brown (an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center should read 195 degrees F).
- Remove from the oven and immediately brush with more of the melted butter. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans and cool completely before slicing. The bread can be stored in an airtight bread bag or wrapped tightly in plastic wrap at room temperature for up to 4 days. It can also be frozen for up to 1 month.
Note #1: This recipe can be halved to make only one loaf.
Note #2: You can substitute active dry yeast for the instant yeast. Ensure that it is indeed activated in step #1 before continuing, and note that the rise times will be slightly longer.