Bread Line

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Oct 17 20:11:25 UTC 2002

Historically, the "bread-line" question stands thus.  In the late 19th C, the New Model Viennese Bakery, run by Louis Fleischmann, on Broadway and Twelfth street, was in the practice of giving day-old bread at midnight to whoever applied for it.  The NYTimes of September 16, 1896 mentions the line of people waiting for bread.  The bakery had been around for up to 20 years before 1896.  The obvious descriptive term for this was a "bread-line", but the Times did not use these two words, and I can't beat the 1900 citation in DAE, DAmer and OED.

Philologically, there is the question of when the term "bread-line" as applied to this nightly line-up of the hungry poor, or similar lines at other places or in other cities, came to be used figuratively, to mean "poverty", &c., as in "if that's the way he throws his money around, he'll be on the bread-line before long."  OED has a quotation from 1909, that "the republic" was "chained to the bread line", but it seems to come from a biography of McCormick, the inventor of the reaping machine, and I suspect that the author had in mind that until McCormick made harvesting of large fields of grain efficient, the bread supply was inadequate -- so, a figurative use, but not the usual one.  OED's 3rd and last quotation, from 1929,  is clearly what I have in mind: someone writes that he had spent his life with "people close to the bread line."

The historical question is confused by the fact that the Fleischmanns were a large family of brothers.  The chief seems to have been Charles Louis, who lived in Cincinnati, and who began as a cultivator and supplier of yeast to bakers and brewers.  It appears that he didn't get into retail baking and running a cafe & bakery until the Chicago World's Fair of 1876.  He was also an inventor, particularly of contrivances useful in baking, brewing, distilling, &c.  He's the one who has biographies in the Dictionary of American Biography and the American National Biography.  He died in 1897.  The DAB and ANB name only one of his brothers, but Louis Fleischmann, the New Yorker who ran the bakery and gave out the bread and died in 1904, evidently was another.  But it's odd that his obituary and several related stories in the Times don't connect him with his family.  It seems that both Charles Louis and Louis, as well as other family members had estates in the same village in the Cat!
skill's, and the grateful citizenry renamed the village Fleischmann's in acknowledgement.  I checked America: History & Life, but found only an article about Max Fleischmann, one of C. L.'s sons, who was involved in a depression-era food program in Santa Barbara.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African
Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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