The Stella D’Oro Biscuit Company, a small family-run factory in the Bronx, was changing rapidly in the 1950s.1 Early in the decade many small firms were moving beyond their local neighborhoods to reach a wider market. Anything seemed possible. In the late 1940s, Joseph Kresivich, a native of Trieste, Italy, opened a new Stella D’Oro factory three blocks from the original bakery in the Kingsbridge section, which he had started in 1932 with his wife, Angela, and where they baked anisette cookies, breadsticks, biscuits, and biscotti for the local Italian community. After the war the cookies and breadsticks caught on with dieters, a growing consumer group eager to buy products that cut calories. Stella D’Oro did not, however, spare the calories in their Swiss Fudge cookies, which enjoyed a large and loyal Jewish following because they were made without milk or butter and thus were kosher.
Stella D’Oro’s European-style baked goods were not very sweet and were geared toward adult tastes. In the new factory, the company’s workers (who joined the 98,000 other New Yorkers who, as late as the 1950s, were manufacturing all types of food) could produce larger quantities to supply the many new customers. By midcentury, even though the sons and daughters of immigrants were leaving the old neighborhoods for other parts of the city or the suburbs, they had not left the tastes of their childhood behind. Over the decade Stella D’Oro products, like other ethnic specialties, appeared on more and more greater New York supermarket shelves.2
Hard to believe, but bagels were still considered exotic fare. In an article about a strike at the factory in 1957, the New York Times assumed Gentile readers had never seen a bagel before, describing it as “a kind of hard roll with a hole in the center.”
The trend toward eating less bread continued in postwar America. Higher incomes and increased spending power allowed for more varied purchases, and with all the processed products beckoning from the supermarket shelves and freezers, bread had new competition. And new troubles.
The factory bread industry was roiled by labor issues throughout the 1950s.3 Helped by the New Deal, unions had finally organized big bread. Two large strikes were averted in the first two years of the decade, when, in one of their first real victories in three hundred years, bakery workers won a five-day workweek. By then most of the 22,000 New Yorkers making bakery products were union members, and the Bakery and Confectionery Workers numbered 2,500 members working in 9 of the city’s largest companies. A two-week strike in 1954 won them further wage increases.
During the early 1950s wheat prices were rising. The causes were varied. The United States was sending wheat to war-ravaged countries, and bread bakers faced competition from macaroni-makers, whose preferred durum wheat, decimated by disease and bad weather, was in short supply. By mid-decade prices for shortenings had risen almost 100 percent. S. B. Thomas was the first bakery to increase the price of its bread, and all the other manufacturers soon followed. Drake’s Bakery, one of the largest companies devoted exclusively to cake baking, discontinued several types of doughnuts in the 1950s. It was narrowing its line to those varieties that weren’t too expensive to make and “developing items we can live with.”4 Its main plant was at 77 Clinton Street in Brooklyn, but it also built two factories outside the city. That was a sign of things to come.
In the 1950s, Jewish rye and bagels, Danish pumpernickel, Norwegian grisle, Irish soda bread, Swedish limpa, and German Kaiser rolls, plus hearth-baked bread, were all made in automated factories by small specialty bakers in neighborhoods mainly scattered throughout Brooklyn.5 After closing its original bakery in Manhattan, the Pechter Baking Company bought a former Ward Baking plant at 800 Pacific Street, between Vanderbilt and Carlton Avenues in Brooklyn, in 1953.6 It opened additional plants in the Bronx and Westchester County and ran the Harrison Baking Company in New Jersey. Pechter made dark, heavy ryes and pumpernickels, white bread, Kaiser rolls, egg bread, layer cakes, bialys, and bagels. Hard to believe, but bagels were still considered exotic fare. In an article about a strike at the factory in 1957, the New York Times assumed Gentile readers had never seen a bagel before, describing it as “a kind of hard roll with a hole in the center.”7
The Larsen Baking Company had opened in 1900 in Red Hook to make grisle, a sour rye bread baked in an oven with bonfires on each side that gave the crust a smoky flavor and made the bakers look “like coal miners.”8 The smoky flavor was sacrificed when the bakery automated and the dough was baked with steam heat. In the 1950s the bakery made a wide variety of Norwegian breads and cakes, but as with many ethnic bakeries, demand for grisle was dwindling as the neighborhoods changed. By the end of the decade most of Larsen’s business was in cakes, sweet breads, and green soda bread for Saint Patrick’s Day.
THE QUEEN PASSES
In 1953, Horowitz and Margareten sold out its Passover production during the hectic week leading up to the holiday as “people come in cars from all over the city to the bakery to buy ‘hot’ matzohs.” One of the family explained, “Everyone expects them fresh from the griddle.” This was still a family-run business, and “children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren” were expected to pitch in during the Passover rush. The ninety-year-old matriarch, Regina Margareten, still made daily visits to the block-long Long Island City plant. She rarely sat at her glass-topped desk, because she was too busy overseeing every stage of the baking process.9
In 1945 she had been instrumental in making the decision to move Horowitz and Margareten from the Lower East Side to the larger Long Island City plant. In truth the company hadn’t had much choice; the old neighborhood had been condemned to make way for a housing project, part of mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s plan to build a more modern and efficient city. The company’s employees followed it to the new factory; they were family. “My people have been with me for years, and many of their children work here now,” Regina said. “In fact, I’m godmother to about twenty-five and have attended many of their weddings.”
As a grandmotherly businesswoman and the company spokesperson, Regina made an annual radio broadcast during Passover in the 1940s and 1950s. First she gave a Yiddish greeting, which she would repeat in English “for the sake of the children who may be listening in.”10 In 1952, in her final talk, she thanked the United States for the “freedom, prosperity, and happiness we have here.” Regina Margareten worked until two weeks before her death in 1959. The “Matzoh Queen” was ninety-six. Her passing marked the end of an epoch.
As the 1950s came to a close, it was clear that for the largest factories there were greener pastures than New York City. Like many corporations, National Biscuit had gone on a building spree following the war, when it could finally begin construction after years of pent-up desire to expand. But National’s New York complex, “the largest cracker bakery in the world,”11 wasn’t included in the nine factories around the country that the company renovated during the 1950s. Multistory structures couldn’t house advanced machinery—they had become obsolete.
The first National Biscuit plant to leave New York was Hills Brothers Dromedary Dates near the Brooklyn entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.12 The complex of fourteen buildings was deemed outmoded, and production was moved to a plant in upstate New York almost 300 miles away. For the four hundred employees, mostly women, it might as well have been Tibet.
As the 1950s came to a close, it was clear that for the largest factories there were greener pastures than New York City.
The National Biscuit compound in Manhattan—New York’s largest factory, which included 7 acres between 14th and 16th Streets and Ninth and Eleventh Avenues, multiple bakery buildings, railroad and pedestrian bridges, a cafeteria seating 500, a research lab for 125, plus a huge parking garage on 14th Street—was sold in 1956.13 But before National closed shop, hardbread crackers had one last role to play in the city where they had been invented. In 1957, New York’s government amassed stores of crackers made by National Biscuit on 15th Street. It was the height of the Cold War, a period when both government agencies and private citizens bought “survival crackers” to stock fallout shelters in the event of a nuclear attack. A cache of 352,000 crackers was packed in airtight containers under the Brooklyn Bridge and forgotten, only to be discovered in 2006 during a routine structural inspection. An official who sampled the forty-nine-year-old crackers said they “tasted like cardboard.”14
The company was moving to a new location in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, about 12 miles north of the George Washington Bridge.15 Its 40 acres could accommodate a sleek horizontal factory where the operations would be performed by the latest automated machinery, including a new “electronic brain” that could direct a myriad of ingredients in sixteen giant mixing machines. Machine-driven systems would handle many of the tasks performed on standardized production lines, making New York’s large pool of skilled workers unnecessary. National Biscuit’s corporate offices stayed in the city, moving into a newly constructed skyscraper at 435 Park Avenue.
The company and its executives were welcome in the suburban community, but its workers were not. Maxwell Lehman, the deputy city administrator, reported that the “feeling in Fair Lawn as in other communities [is] that the type of worker who would come out of New York was ‘not wanted.’”16 The mayor declared that the town “welcomes all who can find a home.” But that was just a politic way of saying the same thing, as most of the towns in the adjacent areas had banned the building of apartments or “look alike” tract housing. The mayor did concede that “many workers might find it economically difficult to obtain homes priced within their budgets.” As there was nowhere affordable for the New York employees to live, in the end the “great majority” of workers in the new National Biscuit plant already lived in New Jersey.
Some companies supplied buses to ferry their workers to far-off factories. That option usually petered out. Many just couldn’t afford to make the time-consuming commute. When a factory relocated to a distant state, moving was out of the question. The hard truth was that companies were happy to shed their New York workers, most of whom, organized in labor’s New Deal banquet years, were paid a union wage.
Excerpted from Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York by Joy Santlofer. Copyright © 2017 by the Estate of Joy Santlofer. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.