In 1997, The Economist published an article on the origin of the baguette which claimed (erroneously) that it was invented in 1920 in response to a law which forbade French bakers to work at night. In fact the baguette, arguably, was rooted in the eighteenth century (when long narrow breads first appeared). Still, it is true that the baguette was "born" in 1920 - that is, that was the year it was first mentioned in print (in a law which defined its size and price).
Which leaves a major question unanswered: how did the word baguette ("wand" or "stick") come to be applied, all at once in 1920, to a bread?
It seems likely that it already existed in a more informal way and so, on a recent trip to France, one of my goals was to investigate its possible use in the years leading up to 1920. A likely place to look seemed to be the specialized papers which catered to bakers; I had planned to review publications like Le Boulanger français, La Boulangerie française and La Défense de la boulangerie in search of any earlier mention of the term.
Right off, I hit an obstacle. Most of these newspapers are too fragile to be delivered to readers. (Probably I was the first to request them since they had been acquired.) Even after making a special request, I was unable to view some of the key issues that interested me.
Still, I did get to see some. And was thoroughly disappointed.
It turns out that bakers, in their professional publications, simply did not talk about specific breads. The audience for such newspapers was primarily made up of small business owners who happened to be bakers, and they had no interest in discussing the details of their products. Even in describing professional banquets - where presumably the best bread was served - the writers did not find it fit to describe the breads. The price lists, which in some official publications actually refer to specific breads, in the bakers' papers referred only to the price by weight.
What then concerned bakers in the early twentieth century?
First of all, and above all, the "taxe du pain". This referred to, not a levy (tax) on the price of bread, but its regulation. Since the Middle Ages, Paris and other municipalities had conducted trials ("essais") whose purpose was to determine how much flour was necessary to produce a certain weight of bread. Based on these trials, cities would then set prices for bread in relation to a given price for wheat.
For just as long, bakers had loudly protested that it was impossible to bake a specific weight of bread every time one used the corresponding weight of flour. Few things upset French bakers as much as attempts to regulate the price of their product. Bakers' journals in the early twentieth century reflected this concern; week after week, articles appeared which somehow found new ways to say that the regulation of bread prices was an unreasonable imposition on bakers.
This was complicated by a wrinkle in French regulation: certain breads - "fancy breads" or "luxury breads" (pains de fantaisie) - were excused from regulation on the grounds that their unusual shape or size made it impossible to bake them to a set weight. Since this included breads beyond a certain length, one not unexpected result of this stipulation was that breads in Paris became almost comically long (up to two meters). But in the years leading up to World War I a new law was proposed which would have ended the classification of very long breads as pains de fantaisie. In opposing this law, a representative of one bakers' group managed to simultaneously complain about how onerous they were to make while pleading for them to be authorized - authorized, that is, as luxury breads:
In Paris, in its regions and in a great number of other cities and localities, luxury breads are made whose weight often exceeds 1 kg, 500. These breads generally have a special form, very large dimensions, and their production is much more costly for the baker, not only because of the skilled personnel they require but also because of the considerable space these breads take in the oven, which only allows baking a few at a time. To refuse considering these as luxury breads then equates to eliminating them. And so why deprive the clientele of bread to its taste and its convenience since it demands nothing better than to pay a slightly higher price for them than for others, so long as they are provided?This was by far the foremost of the bakers' concerns, and the one most regularly mentioned, not only in their newspapers, but in various works of the time.
The next was the on-going issue of night work. This, it seems, was relatively new in French baking; by various accounts, it had only appeared sometime in the nineteenth century in an effort to get a competitive advantage over other bakers. But by the end of that century, it was an established practice and bakers were often known as "white miners". For some time, an effort had been made to ban the practice, an effort which was, in fact, successful, just before the appearance of the baguette. Bakers - that is, the small business people whose employees were often actually the ones to work through the night - were predictably opposed to this and their journals reflected that position. Various objections were raised - that bakers' workers were happy to have the day to themselves, that it would be impossible to provide fresh bread in the morning without working through the night, etc. Perhaps more surprisingly, such objections continued to appear after the law had, in theory, been implemented. But in later years bakers who had been apprentices during that period said that the law had never really taken effect - making it all the more unlikely (had further proof been needed) that the baguette would have been invented to compensate for any change in practice.
Finally, another issue appeared with some frequency: the nutritional value of white bread. The bakers' position on this question is easily deduced from this headline from the Reveil de la Boulangerie: "Dark bread will never be worth our white bread." This article, looking back at earlier debates on the question, stated that "to believe certain auguries of a facile science, whole wheat bread was more nutritious, more digestible and more economical." (August 16, 1912) This was not unusual - article after article in bakers' journals demonstrated, facts in hand, that white bread was not only as wholesome as whole wheat bread, but in fact MORE so.
The tragic-comic touch to this persistent defense of a position unthinkable today is that 1914 arrived, and with it World War I, and suddenly whole wheat bread was the only one legally allowed. Since the bakers wanted after all to sell the only product they were allowed to make, their reservations about pain bis became far less apparent.
And the baguette in all this? It never seems to have mattered, at least not in print. Even after 1920, it is easier to detect its presence in the popular than in the specialized press. And at that, its presence suddenly was taken for granted, with no "Wow" (the Economist's word) moment to mark its arrival. How the word became associated with a bread, all at once in 1920, remains a mystery.
FOR FURTHER READING:
About the Baguette
or the more recent ebook version:
About the Baguette: Exploring the Origin of a French National Icon
Recueil d'ordonnances et de cris concernant le blé et le pain à Paris ; essais de farines, taxes du pain. 1396-1478
Registres consulaires de la ville de Lyon, ou Recueil des délibérations du conseil de la commune, de 1416 à 1423. I. 1416 à 1423
Diverses taxes du pain. Barême du Boulanger ou comptes faits selon les diverses taxes du pain, par un boulanger de Bordeaux -imp. de Cruzel (Bordeaux)-1847
Le Syndicat de la boulangerie de Paris à MM. les membres du Parlement. Historique de la taxe, par Ambroise Morel
La suppression du travail de nuit dans la boulangerie
Isabelle Bertaux-Wiame, "Une enquête sur la boulangerie artisanale en France"