Male Bias in the History of Bread: Logo for Fleischmann’s Yeast

Fleischmanns Yeast | Busy Beaver Button Museum
Fleischmann’s Yeast Advertisement circa 1912

When The American yeast company, Fleischmann’s, had a pictorial logo in the first decades of the twentieth-century, they made it male.

From the Neolithic and up until very recently, women were responsible for most of the process of producing bread. With the limited exception of baking bread in commercial operations and certain grain planting processes, like plowing with animals, bread making was woman’s work. They became involved with harvest and post-harvest grain processing. While men may have fashioned the large wooden tools used in agriculture, women wove the baskets used to clean grain. Women made the baskets sieves and spun and wove the cloth used to sift meal into a more refined flour. Women made the dough, managed the fire used to bake the breads, baked them, served the bread, along with other foods, to her household. While we do not know how various levels of commercial baking were distributed by gender, taking a global survey of bread production today, we usually see men in the higher status baking jobs, with women in more subsistence baking operations.

Male bakers dominate the public face of the contemporary bread world. Girls growing up today would never guess that for virtually all of the last ten thousand years women were at the center of bread production. Women are largely invisible in the written history of bread. When we start getting cookbooks in the sixteenth-century, it is easy to see that the assumed recipient of baking advice is female. But, she has no agency.

I got to thinking about the way in which woman’s role in bread is depicted from a passage I read this morning in Seneca The Younger’s Epistle XC.

It is hard to believe, my dear Lucilius, how easily the charm of eloquence wins even great men away from the truth. Take, for example, Posidonius—who, in my estimation, is of the number of those who have contributed most to philosophy—when he wishes to describe the art of weaving. He tells how, first, some threads are twisted and some drawn out from the soft, loose mass of wool; next, how the upright warp keeps the threads stretched by means of hanging weights; then, how the inserted thread of the woof, which softens the hard texture of the web which holds it fast on either side, is forced by the batten to make a compact union with the warp. He maintains that even the weaver’s art was discovered by wise men, forgetting that the more complicated art which he describes was invented in later days—the art wherein

The web is bound to frame; asunder now

The reed doth part the warp. Between the threads

Is shot the woof by pointed shuttles borne;

The broad comb’s well-notched teeth then drive it home. (Ovid book vi 53)

Seneca the Elder, Epistle XC. Loeb Edition.

Seneca drew on Ovid for the poetical citation — “The web is bound to frame…”. Ovid was describing the contest foolishly consented to by Arachne with Pallas Athena. Seneca is aware that women, and female gods, are associated with weaving. Nonetheless, while indirectly acknowledging women, Seneca ascribes the invention of weaving to a man.

Women were at the center of the invention of bread. As a group, woman functioned as a vertically integrated baking establishment — milling, sifting, creating the dough, baking, and serving. I think the, “and serving” is important. Women bakers were “field to fork.” When serving bread to their families, they will have noted how their breads were received, and made adjustments accordingly. Women will have been talking with each other, in many cases processing grains together, so they will have shared experiences.

The archaeobotanical evidence of early breads having been sifted may offer a simple proof that, on average, us humans prefer refined breads to whole grain. As sifting is an extra step (or even multiple extra steps), it seems unlikely this would have been undertaken for no reason. While we cannot prove that the flour in the earliest bread thus far excavated was sifted, we do know it was finely ground as 41% of the starches are in the range of what we consider white flour. The flour was either sifted, as it did not contain many very large particles, or it had been super finely ground — which is itself a lot of extra work.

My sense is that early on, even 14,000 years ago, when women in hunter gatherer communities were first baking breads, women recognized that their families preferred breads made with a relatively finely ground flour over breads made with coarser flours. They will have spent the extra time to produce a relatively fine flour out of the same emotion that drives us to do our best to please our children at mealtime: love. I think it is important to look at the material culture of the Natufians and early Neolithic peoples to be reminded that they had a rich material culture, one that was richer than many people living today, and that they will have brought intentionality to their baking, just as we do.

Women will have shaped the domestic bread culture on which higher status breads produced outside the house were produced. When the household bread is a flatbread, so is the bread served at court. And when the household bread is a loaf, so is the bread served at court.

Big issues in bread history — like the rejection of rye in most of Western Europe — will likely have had its origin in the ways in which cultural preferences evolve, and are then reinforced within the household. This whole domestic dynamic — the female dynamic — is missing from bread history. We inherit an unrelenting male bias towards seeing men as the agents of innovation — in Seneca’s formulation, men as the inventors of weaving.

In real life, no one person, male or female, invented weaving. But, as one of the household arts, its development belonged to women. Their understanding of weaving and grain grinding put them at the center of flour, the single most important ingredient in bread.

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