Once upon a time, there was no such thing as peanut butter and jelly. This was known as the Pre-Lunch Period.
Even once peanuts were invented no one really cared or paid attention until the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
Initially, peanut butter was a très trendy treat and one ate it on toast triangles while one called oneself “one.” One sometimes at it with watercress just to show that one was sophisticated enough not to spit out the watercress.
Meanwhile in 1901, Julia Davis Chandler invented the recipe for peanut butter and jelly. (All hail the first Ms. Julia.)
Things really picked up for pb&j when Otto Rohwedder invented the bread slicer. Yes, he most certainly did, and he marketed it as “the greatest step forward in baking since bread was wrapped. (Later the slogan became “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”—I am not making that up.) The bread slicer meant that people (and by “people” I mean children and klutzy adults) could make sandwiches without having to handle sharp implements.
With pre-sliced bread readily available, people needed things to put in between slices.
Enter Mr. Paul Welch and his love of smooshing up grapes into jelly, which wasn’t nearly as good as strawberry jam, but Paul didn’t care about that at all.
Meanwhile, the peanut thing was happening. Fact: Peanut butter was not invented by Dr. George Washington Carver. He just popularized all things peanut. Peanut butter was probably invented by Dr. Ambrose Straub who thought peanut butter paste was a good thing for patients who had trouble swallowing (or fewer than the standard number of teeth). Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (you know him as the inventor of boxes of cereal) figured out how to manufacture peanut butter. Kellogg and Straub went to the Fair (the St. Louis World Fair) and it was a hit. A smallish hit, but a hit nonetheless.
Enter sugar added to peanut butter (yum), creamier peanut butter that didn’t stick to the roof of your mouth as much (yay), and The Great Depression (boo). Peanut butter was satisfying, high in protein, and cheap, all of which helped boost its popularity.
Then (this part should be accompanied by an amazing soundtrack), We the People entered WWII and pb&j went right along with us. Peanut butter and jelly was (were? was?) part of the rations given to soldiers—and it was better than much of the food they were served. And with that, peanut butter and jelly became the quintessential American lunch.
Nothing much happened on the pb&j front for many years. Then came the Era of Commercialization and Mistakes Were Made. Like combining peanut butter and jelly (and blech) in a single jar. And inventing a shelf stable way to make peanut butter slices (think individually wrapped American cheese slices but with peanut butter) which avoided all that spreading and bread ripping. Bad ideas all around.
These days, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a staple of most homes that have people living in them. There is much controversy in the world about whether creamy or chunky is the correct version (as if it’s even a question!) but that’s a different discussion for a different day.
P.S. Guess what I had for dinner last night?