When I began my working life as an office dogsbody, earning the impressive sum of ten guineas ($21) a week, my go-to lunch was a sandwich. It was made to order by a harried-looking woman behind the counter of the sandwich bar next door. She flipped two slices of white bread from the Tip Top packet, smeared them with margarine and added the selected filling. This could have been a thin slice of ham, occasionally topped by an equally thin slice of cheese and perhaps a couple of slivers of tomato. Salt and pepper were upon request. Toasted cost extra.

There were other options. Egg, curried egg, cheese (without the ham), chicken, or salad, which consisted of shredded lettuce, grated carrot, cucumber and, if I wasn’t quick to say no, a slice of beetroot. All of the above were also available in a white roll. Lunch-shop sandwiches in the mid-1960s were simple affairs. Much has changed over time.

The custom of enclosing a savoury (or sometimes sweet) filling in bread is probably as old as bread itself. Scientists who discovered 14,000-year-old breadcrumbs in an ancient fireplace in Jordan suggested that the bread may have been used to wrap chunks of roasted gazelle, to make the world’s oldest sandwich. India’s chapatis and Mediterranean pittas were an evolution of these earliest flatbreads.

The sandwich as we generally understand it, though, has English origins. It’s named after its inventor, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. Sandwich is a historic town in England’s southeast. Coincidentally, it’s not far away from a village called Ham.

Road sign in Kent, England

The worthy Earl, in his role as First Lord of the Admiralty, was a sponsor of Captain Cook’s voyages in the Pacific. Cook named the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) after him. However, Montagu’s main claim to fame was his supposed call (some time back in the 1750s) for an easy-to-handle snack while playing cards. Someone slapped some meat between two slices of bread and by 1762, according to diarist Edward Gibbon, the elite of the kingdom were ‘supping at little tables…upon a bit of cold meat or a Sandwich’.

Sam Knight’s article in The Guardian in 2017 calls this creation myth into question, however. He suggests that the Earl, far from being a rake and gambler, was a somewhat impoverished and overworked public servant who was far more likely to have consumed the first sandwich at his desk.

Whatever the origin, by the early 1800s the sandwich was well established and had migrated to Australia with the early colonists.  In advertisements for household goods arriving off the ships in those early years, there are frequent mentions of ‘sandwich services’. By then, in polite society, the sandwich had its own form of crockery: small plates matched to a serving dish.

Sandwich service
Sandwich service – just the thing for afternoon tea

In 1829, Sydney chemist and druggist, Henry Mace, was advertising ‘anchovie paste for making sandwiches’. The same year, John Moses of Hobart Town, pastrycook and confectioner, was offering ‘Soups, Jellies, Sandwiches, Custards and Ginger Beer ready every day’. In 1848, Sydney’s Royal hotel promised to provide ‘luncheons and sandwiches at a moment’s call – ham or beef’.

A robust filling of sliced meat was the norm for the working man’s sandwich, often acquired from a  ‘ham and sandwich’ shop. The more delicate anchovy paste or potted shrimp sandwiches appeared at genteel tea parties or at picnics, which were popular (and elaborate) throughout the 19th century. By the end of the century, cucumber sandwiches had no doubt made an appearance in a homage to ‘home’, where Queen Victoria famously had them served to her guests at her Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887. Recipes for luncheon sandwiches in 1899 included fillings of finely chopped chicken mixed with hard-boiled egg, thinly sliced ham with mustard, sliced beef tongue, and tinned salmon combined with mixed pickles.

By the early 20th century the ‘pie, pasty and sandwich shop‘ was catering for city shop assistants, factory hands and office workers. There are no menus extant to point us to the contents of these sandwiches. However, by the 1920s some shop-owners were becoming more ambitious. In 1928, the Geelong Advertiser reported on the treats prepared by an unnamed sandwich shop proprietor who, they said, was inspired by sandwich saloons in New York.

Every description of sandwich is sold: the sweet sandwich of sliced banana, covered with cream and sold between slices of brown bread; the savory sandwich in which paprika and curry powder are mingled with meat or meat pastes; the hot sandwich which is made from bacon or chicken placed between rounds of hot toast….Sandwiches of large, thin biscuits are filled with devilled meats, and strange sandwiches of milk bread contain sliced, preserved ginger, allied to chopped nuts or minced figs — both admirable mixtures.

Each variety has its name — often one which gives no clue to its character. “Farmer’s Delight,” “Maid’s Madness,” and “Sunshine Savory,” are just examples of these delectable morsels.

Fast forward a couple of decades and the more exotic sandwich fillings were still generally the preserve of the ambitious hostess. The 1944 edition of the Green and Gold Cookery Book suggests chocolate cream, apple and celery, chocolate and ginger and mock crab (a concoction of mashed tomato, hard-boiled egg, grated cheese, mustard and Vegemite). In the 1950s, my mother’s party piece was brain and walnut sandwiches. Don’t scoff (or gag). They were delicious.

Sandwich choices on a school canteen menu, 1974
Sandwich choices on a school canteen menu, 1974

Meanwhile, the sandwich bars and school tuck shops generally stuck to the classics. Sometimes there was a choice of breads – white, brown or wholemeal. But our tastes were changing. In the 1980s a completely new type of sandwich arrived: the focaccia. This pizza-style, flattish bread could be filled with all manner of exotic ingredients, since by then we had discovered grilled eggplant, sundried tomatoes, mozzarella, prosciutto and other gourmet treats.

The arrival of the focaccia coincided with the rise of the deli – no longer just a glorified grocer’s shop but a combination of café and food store. Our lunchtime choices would be forever changed. By the mid-1990s we had panini, pide, lavash and wraps, not to mention sourdough, rye and gluten-free breads.  These days, lobster rolls from name chefs make headlines. There are national competitions for the best sandwich; the winner in 2013 had a filling of spiced pear relish, miso mayo, raw Brussels sprout slaw and five-spiced crackling.

Oriana Food Bar, Geelong Street, Fyshwick
The Oriana Food Bar, Geelong Street, Fyshwick.

The old-fashioned sandwich bar has not completely disappeared. No doubt the ladies behind the counter of the Oriana food bar in Fyshwick, Canberra, will still do you a toasted ham and cheese on wholemeal, as they did when I worked next door ten years ago. But as Jill Dupleix put it in 1996:

The art of the sandwich has grown and so has the sandwich. No more is it something limp between two slices of wishy-washy white bread. The new sandwich has to be held in two hands and requires a fair degree of cardio-vascular activity to raise it to the mouth. The bread is door-stopper thick, or squashed road-kill flat in a toaster grill…The new sandwich is more like a meal, good for fuelling the body between running around the office all day and dancing at the club all night.

Well, at the time of writing (September 2021) both the office and the club are likely to be out of bounds, thanks to COVID lockdowns. But the takeaway sandwiches, in all their variety, keep coming. Just wear a mask when you front up to the counter, OK?