Did the Earl of Sandwich invent the sandwich?
The 4th Earl of Sandwich concocted the convenient snack so that he could keep playing cards, or so the legend goes. As Jonny Wilkes discovers, this story may well be baloney (and not the kind you might put between two slices of bread)
John Montagu became the 4th Earl of Sandwich at the age of 10, in 1729. He later served in several political offices during his life, including as Postmaster General, Secretary of State for the Northern Department (precursor to the Foreign Office) and First Lord of the Admiralty during the American Revolutionary War.
But none of that stands up against his greatest legacy, as the purported creator of the sandwich.
As the story goes, the year was 1762. Montagu, an inveterate gambler, had been at the card table for 24 hours straight when, not wishing to break his marathon gaming session, he called on his servant to bring him two slices of bread with a slice of beef in between. He could therefore keep playing while holding his meal in one hand, with the added benefit of not getting the cards greasy from the beef juice. And so, the first sandwich was made.
While this would have been something of a faux pas in Georgian high society, eating so informally and without cutlery, the earl’s friends were purportedly soon asking to “have the same as Sandwich”. And so, the name of the sandwich was made.
But did he really invent the sandwich?
The story is most likely apocryphal, and there are contradictions across different versions. One suggests that the earl simply asked for something he could eat with his hands, and so it was the servant or cook that actually devised the bread-and-meat combo, while another tale claims that he requested his game-changing quick bite not at the card table at all, but while hard at work at his desk.
The concept of the convenient and easy to make food certainly pre-existed the earl of Sandwich – and that’s before getting into the discussion of what constitutes a sandwich in the first place. Could the food made by the first century BC Jewish leader, Hillel the Elder, for the Passover Seder – bitter herbs and perhaps lamb in between matzah – be called a sandwich?
The earl may not have invented it, but he is certainly the person honoured in its name. In 1762, the same year as the supposed origin story, the esteemed historian Edward Gibbon wrote in his diary: “Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a Sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.”
- Try it yourself | Browse our collection of historical recipes
This suggests that the story had spread, so it’s perhaps the case that the earl popularised the sandwich rather than invented it.
And it did become popular. In the 1772 book A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants, the French travel writer Pierre-Jean Grosley entrenched the story, claiming: “This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London: it was called by the name of the minister, who invented it.”
It is worth noting that the first earl, Edward Montagu, had chosen to take the name of the Kent town of Sandwich because it was a major English port at the time. If he had selected his title a little later, then we may well be eating a ham-and-cheese Portsmouth for lunch today.