What Is the Historical Development of Bread?

In Western societies, bread has come to symbolize the primary food that God has given us. Bread and life are intertwined as being seen as being part of each other. The utility of bread to societies in the Old and New World has evolved significantly, where different grains became important and those grains were used to form different types of breads. However, some of the important qualities of bread were likely accidental discoveries, while others still only developed much later.

Early History of Bread

The earliest bread may have been made from cattails and ferns, where these plants were pounded into a fine substance using primitive mortars found that date to nearly 30,000 years ago. This suggests that even before the rise of agriculture, humans had begun to form a type of flour that they would then be baked, perhaps in an open fire, to form bread. The earliest wheat and barley-based breads developed from pre-agricultural and agricultural societies in the Middle East, including in the Levant (Israel, Palestine, Syria), Turkey, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Iran by around 12,000 years ago. The earliest breads were likely unleavened. However, probably accidentally, leavened bread developed as yeast naturally occurring in the environment respires as it consumes natural sugars in wheat. Leavened bread is the release of gases by the yeast bacteria. A document from around 3900 BP indicates how beer was also made from bread. One problem with the production of early bread was preservation, where often it would quickly mold. The solution was to convert unused bread into beer, which proved far more amenable for storage. Beer likely made the production of bread less wasteful, as extra bread not consumed could then simply be made into beer.[1]

Already, with the development of the earliest breads, new technologies arose to help with the baking process. This included enclosed ovens and open ovens that used mud or brick to make a hot surface that flat breads could be prepared from a dough mix. Bread and earlier agricultural foods affected the development of many food preparation technologies, including mortar, pestles, querns, and mills. The production of bread led to many major changes in society, where production and processing of wheat and barely for bread and other foods transformed economies and social structures. Large-scale labor was employed for the production of food with the rise of cities, where increased population required bread to be made at more industrial scales in large ovens and prepared by many people (Figure 1). Initially, the grinding of grain to flour would have been done by hand, often resulting in coarse grains. However, mills and large flat stones were used by early historical periods, perhaps by the 3rd-2nd millennium BCE, to make more refined flour. This helped bread to become less coarse.[2]

Millet was another grain used to make bread, particularly in India and China, where a form of flat bread made of millet is still a main food type in India. In China, sorghum and rice were used as varieties for making bread, which made the consistency and quality very different from wheat- and barley-based bread. This also likely explains why bread developed into different levels of significance in Chinese foods and often did not always accompany Chinese food. In the New World, corn was pounded and used to make bread, which was mostly a flat, unleavened bread that is similar to the modern tortilla.[3]

Figure 1. Bread preparation from Ancient Egyptian models.

Bread and Society

During the Classical period, there were many varieties of bread (Figure 2), ranging from sourdough, honey-and-oil bread, oyster, barley, wheat, poppy seeds, and even rolls. Bread in Near Eastern and European societies became intertwined with meals and often even the main part of meals, where other foods were sometimes called the condiments or extras that one adds to the meal. The Romans had formed special guilds for bread bakers, calling them COLLEGIUM PISTORUM. Bread bakers also became experts in the production of pastries, where Rome itself likely had several hundred pastry chefs during the apex of its ancient population. Sweet breads and breads filled with meats or vegetables became one specialty type. From the Roman period, we learn also about types of breads made of oats, groats, and rye. White bread, usually made from wheat, however, became associated with the wealthy classes. Above all types of breads and pastries, having white bread served at a meal demonstrated important status for someone. Whole wheat and coarse grain breads in Rome would have been seen as food for poor people, while today such breads are more greatly desired for their nutrition and it is white bread that is seen as less healthy and more for poorer classes.[4]

Molds growing on breads were already recognized for their potential medicinal value. This would become the forerunner of penicillin, which was not formally invented until 1933. However, ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, and likely other societies recognized that molds could be used to heal wounds, where moldy bread could be rubbed on wounds to help with the healing process. Bread left to mold, therefore, also became part of medical applications used to clean wounds and infections.[5]

The use of seeds, such as wheat or barley, to grow grains that would then become bread helped bread and life giving sustenance to be closely affiliated, most likely already by the Neolithic. The idea that a few seeds can create enough wheat or barley to create a lot of bread symbolized the importance of grains to society with that symbolism closely associated with bread.[6]

Figure 2. Preserved bread from Roman Pompeii.

Modern Bread

Despite breads importance, change between ancient periods and that of the Medieval world were minor. At times, during famines, bread flour was often mixed with saw dust or other impurities. Bread became associated with religious feasting, given its significance in the church. However, in technology, little was different from antiquity.[7]

One of the biggest changes occurred with the innovation of sliced bread, invented by Otto Frederick Rohwedder. His inventions also included slicing and bagging bread in an automated process. Sliced bread was initially seen as unneeded or wasteful, but soon consumers began to become use to the idea of buying bread that was ready to be used for sandwiches. By World War II, sliced bread had become ingrained as a staple of the American diet. There were attempts to remove bread slicers, as the metal used for them was seen as needed for the war effort, but this caused much complaining in the home front that eventually bread slicers were allowed during the rationing years in World War II.[8]

New large-scale dough making processes were developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The most significant was the Chorleywood bread process, which allowed a dramatic reduction in time (down to about 3.5 hrs from flour to finished bread) for the bread dough to be made and to rise. The process also took advantage of lower quality grains that were more widely available. With its use, not only were far more grains utilized in the bread production process, but this helped to keep bread prices low by making production much easier. Most modern breads today use dough with added chemicals that help speed up the process in which dough rises and can be made into bread. This saves time in the kneading and resting phases needed. In fact, most bread making machines commercially sold provide L-cysteine or sodium metabisulfite that catalyze dough rising far more quickly than traditional breads, allowing for an easy way to mass produce bread with simple bread makers. Large food retailers have generally sold variations of this type of bread in most Western states today. Many bakeries in the West have, in fact, even become almost fully automated, where robots could now simply mix ready made dough with added chemical that allows fast rising bread to be possible.[9]


Bread in Western societies is perhaps one of the most symbolically important foods. Given its early developed even before the rise of agriculture, and that it became the primary staple food in the Middle East and Europe as agriculture developed, demonstrates that bread has played a central role in societal change. The production of wheat, barley, and other grains developed to make breads demonstrates the variety of grain types that could be used in the bread making process. Beer became the way in which the longevity of bread could be extended, making it less costly as excess bread could then be put into beer making production. Bread has gained a sustenance symbolic link, but it was also used for medicinal purposes where early forms of penicillin developed. Bread technologies largely did not change until the 19th and 20th centuries, when automation was introduced to speed up the production of foods. One major developed was the introduction of sliced bread. More recent changes have been the creation of doughs that can rise faster by adding chemicals that catalyze the action of yeast. Despite these changes, bread has retained its centrality as a primary food for most Western societies today.


  1. For more on how bread was developed from wild grains and then developed from agricultural grains, see: Rubel, W. (2011). Bread: a global history. London: Reaktion Books.
  2. For early technologies related to bread production, see: Qarooni, J. (1996). Flat Bread Technology. Boston, MA: Springer US.
  3. For more on grains that can be used for bread, see: Brown, A. C. (2013). Understanding food: principles and preparation (5th Ed). Belmont, CA: Cengage.
  4. For more on bread types in antiquity, see: Tamang, J. P., & Kailasapathy, K. (Eds.). (2010). Fermented foods and beverages of the world. Boca Raton: CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, pg. 14.
  5. For more on penicillin mold and how it was used in the ancient world, see: Ballen, K. G. (2010). Seven wonders of medicine. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, pg. 37.
  6. For more on the symbolism of bread, including in religion, see: Jacob, H. E. (2007). Six thousand years of bread: its holy and unholy history. New York: Skyhorse Pub.
  7. For more on Medieval bread use, see: Adamson, M. W. (2002). Regional cuisines of medieval Europe: a book of essays. New York: Routledge, pg. 97.
  8. For more on the innovation of sliced bread, see: Wallach, J. J., & Wise, M. D. (Eds.). (2016). The Routledge history of American foodways. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, pg. 138.
  9. For more on how quick-rising bread is created, see: Edelstein, S. (Ed.). (2014). Food science: an ecological approach. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, pg. 387.


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