Do we call a sandwich a sandwich because of the 4th Earl of Sandwich? Yes. Was he the first person to come up with the idea? Not at all.
The truth is, we don’t know who invented the sandwich, but it has existed in various forms for thousands of years. One of the earliest known sandwich-eaters was Hillel the Elder, a rabbi and scholar who was born in Babylon and lived in Jerusalem during the first century B.C. The Haggadah, a Jewish text read during the annual Passover Seder, recounts how Hillel made sandwiches using Paschal lamb, bitter herbs and unleavened matzoh bread. In Jewish tradition, during the Seder dinner, participants remember this by creating their own matzoh sandwiches.
Flatbreads have a long history in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. In particular, the “idea of rolling bread with a filling is very ancient in Turkish culture” says Mary Isin, author of Bountiful Empire: A History of Ottoman Cuisine. During the mid-17th century, the 4th Earl of Sandwich traveled to Turkey and other regions in the Ottoman Empire, which may explain where he allegedly got the idea to ask a club or restaurant server to make him a sandwich back in London.
The Earl of Sandwich Develops His Namesake Snack
It’s not clear why the English politician John Montagu, a.k.a. the 4th Earl of Sandwich, became the namesake of the food we call a sandwich. The first known use of the word “sandwich” comes from the diary of the English historian Edward Gibbon. On November 24, 1762, he wrote about seeing men eating “a bit of cold meat, or a Sandwich,” but there is no mention of the earl being the namesake.
Then in the early 1770s, the French travel writer Pierre-Jean Grosley published a gossipy and satirical book called A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants. In it, Grosely described a scene at a gambling table:
The word “sandwich” does not appear in Grosely’s book, but many people assumed the scene in the book (which Grosely may have made up) referred to the 4th Earl of Sandwich. In any case, the name—which people like Gibbon were already using—caught on. By at least the mid-19th century, “sandwich” was so common that English-speaking people were using it as a verb to describe the process of placing something in between two other things, as if one were making a sandwich.
Sandwiches Become Popular in America
After English speakers adopted the word “sandwich,” they began coming up with new words and phrases to describe different types, from meaty Sloppy Joes to the layered club sandwich. The first known recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich appeared in 1901 in The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science & Domestic Economics. During the 1920s, companies began to mass-manufacture peanut butter in the United States and targeted children as potential new consumers. This helped make the PB&J a common school lunch.
The po’ boy is another sandwich that gained popularity in the United States in the early 20th century, though its origin is a little more contested. The famous Louisiana sandwich consists of French bread and a hearty filling, often in the form of fried seafood.
Benny and Clovis Martin, who opened a restaurant in New Orleans in the early 1920s, reportedly claimed that they invented the po’ boy sandwich during a 1929 streetcar drivers’ strike, during which they said they gave away free sandwiches to the “poor boys” who were on strike. But there are records of similar sandwiches going back to the mid-19th century, and the po’ boy may have gotten its name prior to the 1929 strike.
As sandwich chain restaurants proliferated in the late 20th century, national rivalries emerged. In 1964, the first Blimpie restaurant opened in Hoboken, New Jersey. The next year, Pete's Super Submarines—which would later become Subway—opened in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The two restaurants sold submarine sandwiches, a type of sandwich with many different regional nicknames (sub, hoagie, grinder, hero, etc.) that itself has a contested history. Over the next few decades, the two restaurants sought to corner the submarine sandwich market amid a growing field of similar restaurant chains.