Who Invented the Sandwich?

By: Stephanie Watson  | 
Classic Snack Pictures According to legend, we owe this yummy snack to a marathon poker game. Who knew? See more pictures of classic snacks.
Susan Parkhill/Getty Images

Imagine biting into a juicy, flavorful sandwich, a quintessential meal enjoyed by people around the world. From the simple pleasures of ham sandwiches to the gourmet delights of panini and club sandwiches, there's something universally comforting about this culinary creation. But have you ever wondered who invented the first sandwich? What brilliant mind first dreamt up the concept of putting ingredients between sliced bread? In this captivating journey, we'll dive into the layers of history to uncover the origins of the beloved sandwich.


The Ancient Appetite

Our story begins in the ancient world. Over two thousand years ago, in the Mediterranean region, the concept of using sliced bread as a culinary vessel took root. However, it wasn't quite the sandwich we know today. People in ancient Greece and Rome commonly wrapped their thin slices of cold meat and other fillings with flatbreads, a practice akin to the first inklings of the modern sandwich history.


The Earl of Sandwich's Savory Solution

Fast forward to 18th-century England, where the sandwich began to take its modern form. It's here that we meet John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, a notorious gambler and a man with a penchant for efficiency.

Legend has it that his busy gaming sessions left him without time for formal dining, leading him to request his meat be served between two slices of bread. A brilliant idea that birthed the name we now associate with this delectable creation.


From a Bite to a Revolution

With the Earl's love for eating meat in a sandwich, the concept soon gained popularity not only among the English aristocracy but also among the working class. Its practicality and versatility made it a staple light meal among the masses. The British Empire's reach and influence carried the word sandwich to far-flung corners of the world, where it adapted and transformed with regional ingredients and tastes.


America's Sandwich Revolution

As the word sandwich crossed the Atlantic, it took on a life of its own in America. American sandwiches, submarines, heroes, grinders, and hoagies emerged, each with its unique twist. The Dagwood sandwich, famously overstuffed and creatively layered, became an emblem of American creativity. The sandwich had become a symbol of innovation in culinary design.


International Sandwich Adventures

Beyond England and America, the sandwich has seen exciting iterations worldwide. In Vietnam, the Banh Mi showcases the fusion of French baguettes with Vietnamese flavors. Mexico offers the vibrant Torta, while Italy's Panini exemplifies the art of simplicity and quality ingredients. Japan introduces us to the Katsu Sando, and the Middle East serves up Shawarma rolled in pita. The world's love affair with the sandwich knows no bounds.


The Sandwich: A Unifying Meal

What makes the sandwich truly exceptional is its ability to bridge cultures and generations. Whether it's a family picnic, a working lunch, or a quick bite on the go, the sandwich is the perfect unifier. Its adaptability to various dietary preferences has made it a symbol of inclusivity in the culinary world.


Origin Stories of Famous Sandwiches

Wonder where your favorite sandwich originated? Here are the stories behind a few of the more famous sandwich varieties:

  • The Reuben: In 1925, Omaha, Neb. grocer Reuben Kulakofsky reportedly came up with the idea of the corned beef and sauerkraut sandwich to feed his fellow poker players. The dish eventually landed on the menu of a local hotel (although Reuben's Restaurant and Delicatessen in New York City claims the sandwich was its own invention).
  • The chicken sandwich: In 1946, Atlanta restaurant owner Truett Cathy created an alternative to the hamburger when he placed a piece of boneless grilled chicken inside a bun and dubbed it the "Chick-fil-A." Now more than 70 years and 1,500 restaurants later, Chick-fil-A's slogan is, "We didn't invent the chicken. Just the chicken sandwich."
  • The po' boy: New Orleans' version of the sub (or hoagie, depending on which part of the country you hail from) was supposedly invented by French Quarter restaurant owners Clovis and Bennie Martin in 1929. The "poor boys" were the city's striking streetcar conductors, who the Martin brothers fed for free with extra-large sandwiches on rectangular bread.
  • The hamburger: Several different inventors have stepped into the spotlight to claim credit for this famous sandwich. One of these claims comes from the Menches brothers, who reportedly sold a ground beef sandwich at the 1885 Erie County Fair in Hamburg, N.Y. Another tale traces the origins of the burger to 15-year-old Charlie Nagreen of Seymour, Wis., who made it easier for his customers at the 1885 Outagamie County Fair to eat his meatballs by stuffing them between bread. The owners of Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Conn. aren't having any of these stories, though. They say the restaurant's founder, Louis Lassen, was actually the first to flip beef patties onto toasted bread back in 1900.
  • The grilled cheese: The origins of the grilled cheese sandwich can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where bread and cheese were common staples. However, the modern grilled cheese sandwich, as we know it today, gained popularity in the United States during the 1920s. It became a beloved comfort food during the Great Depression, thanks to its affordability and delicious simplicity.
  • The peanut butter sandwich: The peanut butter sandwich also has ancient origins. Native Americans introduced early European settlers to peanuts, and by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, peanut butter production became commercialized. It was during the early 20th century that the peanut butter sandwich gained widespread popularity, with recipes appearing in cookbooks and the sandwich becoming a lunchtime favorite, especially in the United States.
  • The open sandwich: Also known as smørrebrød, hails from Denmark and has a history dating back centuries. It's essentially a single slice of rye bread topped with an array of delectable ingredients, such as cold meats, herring, cheese, and pickled vegetables. This Scandinavian culinary masterpiece was traditionally a way to make the most of available ingredients and has since become a global sensation, known for its artistic presentation and diverse flavors.
  • Croque Monsieur: a beloved French classic, makes its appearance as a hot, grilled sandwich. Its origins can be traced back to the early 20th century in France. This delectable creation typically features slices of ham and creamy béchamel sauce, sandwiched between two slices of French bread, which are then toasted to golden perfection. The Croque Monsieur's name is derived from the French verb "croquer," meaning "to crunch," and "monsieur" to signify a level of sophistication, making it a delightful treat that combines elegance and satisfying comfort in every bite.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Lots More Information

Related Articles