Chefs have been using baking powder to make their biscuits, cakes, and muffins rise for years, but in a funny series of events, baking is also responsible for the rise of grocery stores.
According to the Washington Post, it all started back in the late 1800s when, thanks to falling tea prices, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company decided that they needed to diversify the products their company sold. The Hartford family, who owned the tea company, decided that the product they were going to add to their product list was a relatively new one—baking powder.
Earlier bakers were stuck using yeast to make anything rise. According to historian Jessica Carbone who spoke to Smithsonian Magazine, that meant a batch of muffins could take up to 12 hours to rise, which is a long time to wait for a blueberry muffin. In the late 1700s bakers used potash, a combination of lye and wood ash that undoubtedly added a unique flavor to birthday cakes. In 1846, bakers got a little help with the discovery of baking soda. Baking soda, though, is a touchy product that needed just the right amount of acid to work properly. Add too little or too much could result in either flat cakes or overly fluffy ones.
It wasn’t until 1856, that the first modern baking powder was patented by a young scientist named Eben Norton Horsford, working in the relatively new field of chemistry. Horsford started selling baking powder under the name Rumford, named for his benefactor, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Baking powder was so easy to use that it quickly became the go-to for bakers. As baking powder became increasingly popular, companies rushed to put it on store shelves. However, as the Washington Post notes, some producers weren’t exactly scrupulous in their manufacturing, opting for cheap or less effective ingredients that didn’t deliver consistent results and consumers weren’t completely confident in the product.
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That’s where the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea came in. The Hartford family decided to hire a chemist and make their own baking powder, selling it in little red tins under the name A&P. Yes, that A&P.
As hard as it is to imagine, cardboard boxes had also just been invented, and soon the company started selling other products like condensed milk, butter, and spices under the A&P name in their own A&P packaging.
Soon, A&P decided to sell their own products in their own stores. Per the Washington Post, they started making products in their warehouses and stocking them in their own A&P stores. They also put their A&P branded products on the grocery store shelves where customers could pick them up themselves, instead of behind the counter where store workers had to grab the items. While the South’s own Piggly Wiggly is widely credited as the first modern supermarket, A&P helped pave the way—and it was all thanks to baking powder.