You might recognize the bread box as a kitchen staple and the first line of defense against mold and stale toast. Or, if you grew up in the era of added preservatives and plastic bags like I did, you might have to google it. Either way, you can be forgiven for assuming a bread box is nothing more than the happy, if old-fashioned, home of tasty carbohydrates.
However, if you think that’s all a bread box is good for, you haven’t been reading the newspapers—at least, not the early 20th century ones. Stories abound of the bread box’s role as a public nuisance, a hideaway for “spooners” and even an accessory to crime. In fact, it may be one of the most legislated kitchen accoutrements in modern history.
A point of clarification: As best I can tell, the bread boxes in most of the articles below refer not to the pantry versions but to larger boxes that used to be located outside bakeries and grocery stores. Read on to learn about their varied and understated contributions to civilization as we know it.
This story has it all: business rivalry, crime and, of course, bread boxes. In the early years of the 20th century, police in Whiting, Indiana had a mystery on their hands: Who was responsible for the repeated thefts of bread boxes belonging to grocers and merchants who bought bread from a nearby South Chicago bakery? The plot curdled, er, thickened, when milk dropped off on doorsteps by a particular milk dealer started disappearing, too.
The big break finally came in the summer of 1909 when a vigilant watchman and/or neighborhood busybody noticed a man slinking off after stealing a quart of milk from a doorstep. It didn’t take police long to identify the culprit and search the premises of his employer, a bakery in Whiting. . . and a competitor of the unnamed South Chicago bakery. There, they found fifteen quarts of milk and seventy-five bread boxes. Even for a bakery, seventy-five bread boxes seem excessive.
The article fails to explain why these bakers thought stealing bread boxes from their rival’s customers would lead to more business. Moral of the story: stick to your day job, and don’t try to moonlight as a criminal mastermind. Also, don’t mess with bread boxes.
In 1914, the St. Louis city government drafted a wide-ranging anti-noise ordinance. Among the provisions slated for inclusion in the legislation was a requirement to “make bread box lids noiseless. Drivers now slam them down at 5 a.m. or thereabout with a sleep destroying crash.” It has my vote.
Another idea? “Prohibit airdome pianists from giving a continuous performance of ‘The Tune the Old Cow Died On.’” I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a reference to the song or the idiom. Alas, I was unable to discover if the proposed ordinance was ever signed into law.
If you and your sweetheart can’t afford a trip to Paris, here’s the second-best thing:
What could be more romantic?
A sad advertisement in the Chicago Daily Tribune from December 26, 1908 read: “Lost—party taking bread box containing Xmas gifts Thursday night on Sixty-third street car please return to 6228 Ingleside avenue, first flat. Reward.”
Once again, we find a bread box at the center of a perplexing mystery. This one speaks for itself:
Spurred to activity by persistent complaints made by grocers in Grove street, Jersey City, Policeman James McGowan recently stood in a doorway where he could see and not be seen. While hidden there he witnessed a remarkable exhibition of equine depravity.– From the Salt Lake Tribune, October 15, 1904
McGowan was looking for boys who, he believed, had been stealing bread and milk and he paid little attention to a horse and a mule which ambled leisurely down Seventeenth street and turned into Grove street. McGowan, however, was amazed when he saw the animals stop in front of a bread box outside a grocery store at Sixteenth street. Catching the edge of the lid of the box between its teeth the horse lifted it up.
The mule stepped forward and dragged out two loaves of bread. The lid was closed and each animal devoured a loaf. The horse then pushed over a big can of milk and both animals slaked their thirst by lapping the fluid.
Policeman McGowan arrested the horse, leading it to the second precinct station. The mule followed meekly. When Thomas Hogan, the owner of the thieves, was notified he promised to reimburse the grocer and to lock the animals in a stable at night. The horse and mule were paroled in his custody.
Who says chimpanzees and dolphins are the world’s smartest animals?
Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above historical articles. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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