The Sandwich: An Origin Story

This week has seen two incredibly important landmark occasions. The first is the creation of the blog you’re currently reading! The second, and slightly less historically significant occurrence, is the 250th anniversary of the invention of the sandwich. And what better way to kick off a blog about food and history than an article about something so widely consumed?

Who doesn’t love a good sandwich? Well, besides my 7 year old self who used to hide them in the garbage bin after school. In my defense,  the canteen was selling meat pies and chicken fingers. Sorry mum!

On a side note, my housemate and I have put a great deal of time and effort into concocting the ultimate sandwich. We call it ‘The Perfect Storm’ and it’s a reflection of our highly sophisticated palates. This delectable testament to human will contains the following:

2 slices of 6 inch long garlic bread, toasted
Warm chicken
Crispy bacon
Hash browns/potato gems (Although any kind of fried potato is acceptable)
Melted brie
Garlic aioli

That’s right, we double the garlic content. You’re welcome.

That edible monstrosity aside, back to the task at hand.

A substantial number of Westerners eat sandwiches on a daily basis – whether it be toasted, on brioche, or even something as simple as ham, cheese and tomato on white bread. However, so many of us are completely unaware of the origin story of our most commonly occuring lunch choice.  With that in mind, I would like to introduce you to the man who started it all…

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich

From the looks of things, he may have enjoyed his sandwiches a tad too much

Now let’s at least try to take his title seriously. No? Fair enough.

John Montagu was born in 1718 to a well respected aristocratic family. However, due to an unstable childhood and inheriting little more than his title, he had to work quite hard in order to make a name for himself. He entered the world of politics  in 1739  by sitting in the House of Lords, and by 1744 he was invited to join the government as the First Lord of the Admiralty. Essentially this meant that he controlled  the administration of the British Navy. Throughout his life, Montagu would come to hold a number of important political roles as well as become heavily involved in the arts.

Montagu was also a patron of Captain James Cook who subsequently named quite a few islands after him. Some of these include:

  • The Sandwich Islands (Now Hawaii)
  • Montague Island (9km offshore from Narooma, NSW)
  • The South Sandwich Islands (Southern Atlantic Ocean)
  • Montague Island (Gulf of Alaska)

The South Sandwich Islands – Beautiful, but conspicuously devoid of toasties growing on trees

Unfortunately, Montagu was also a man who hasn’t had a particularly favourable reputation throughout history.   Although he held many important posts and was actively involved in both the Navy and Politics, most believe him to have been thoroughly corrupt and incompetent. This is mostly due to his membership with the Hell-Fire Club – a secret society that practiced ritual sacrifice to the Pagan gods Bacchus and Venus, amongst other dubious activities. It also doesn’t help that he was First Lord of the Admiralty during the American War of Independence and was therefore held partially responsible for Britain and the North’s defeat. Furthermore, he has been been branded as a notorious gambler, but more on that later.

So how did this simultaneously accomplished but historically criticized man come to be attributed with the invention of…

The Sandwich

Rumour has it that as an ardent gambler, Montagu would often not take the time for a proper meal during long sessions.  Instead, he would ask his servants to bring him meat between two slices of bread. This habit was quite well known by his gambling friends and as a result they began to order “the same as Sandwich!” Thus history was made and Montagu will be forever remembered as the man who invented the sandwich because he didn’t want to stop gambling, even to eat.

There is however an alternative to this story. There are a few scholars who scorn the idea of Montagu’s conversant gambling.  Biographers such as Nicholas Rodger  suggest that it is far more likely that due to his passionate naval and political commitments, he probably asked for his quick and easy meal at his work desk, as opposed to the card table.

Not only did Montagu invent a new kind of meal, he was simultaneously pushing the boundaries of social norms.  At the time, main meals involved elaborate carving rituals and took up a great deal of ones time. For Montagu to continue gambling (or working, depending on your school of thought) whilst eating was a shocking informality for a man of his station and social background. He would have come across as very daring and unconventional.


The invention of the sandwich is still honoured today and this week marks the 250th anniversary. The township of Sandwich has been celebrating  the occasion with sandwich making competitions and re-enactments of  Montagu asking for his meat and two slices of bread. The highlight of the week was a luncheon thrown by the current Earl of Sandwich. Personally, I hope that he served salads and mini quiches, just to be contrary.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the first ever Delicious History post. I can assure you that I’ll be serving up plenty more in the new future. Yeah, see what I did there?

Fun Fact
: John Montagu’s ancestor, Sir Edward Montagu, had a choice when it came to his title – The Earl of Sandwich or the Earl of Portsmouth.

Spoiler Alert: He went with the former.

Can you imagine ordering a chicken and salad portsmouth from your local cafe? I didn’t think so.

6 thoughts on “The Sandwich: An Origin Story

  1. Thank you Earl for your gift to mankind.
    Sorry Captain Cook that your awesome name for Hawaii didn’t stick. It would make a holiday there even more appealing.


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