The Great American Breakfast


Prior to the nineteenth century, breakfast in America was an afterthought. the day labourer may have a small snack before he tends to his crop, and then eat another small meal later in the day, often leaving the largest meal for supper, where most americans got their nutrients for the day.

The History of the American Breakfast.


The breakfast with which we associate the title “American Breakfast” does not start to emerge until the mid-nineteenth century, with America becoming more industrialized, traveling on trains and via steamboats became more popular and commonplace for those who could afford it. with this traveling, came hotels. Hotels, which often cropped up around popular destinations for trains, a system that seemed to grow organically together and around each other. the typical breakfast we would see in hotels of this era are described in Abigail Carroll’s book “Three Square: The Invention of the American Meal” is as follows:

“…Hot and cold bread of different sorts, including corn bread (a little of which was rather nice with plenty of molasses and butter), little seed cakes, pancakes, and fritters, milk, butter buried in large lumps of ice, molasses, preserves and blackberry syrup in large soup tureens…hot beef steaks, roast and boiled chickens, and various sorts of cold meat. To drink, we had tea and coffee, and, occasionally chocolate with hot, cold and iced milk, and white and brown sugar”

-Abigail Carroll, Pg.133, “Three Sqaures”

This breakfast is the forefather of what we consider to be our “American breakfast”. Key players like pancakes, milk, preserves, steaks (although they have fallen out of fashion, steak and eggs is still in the pantheon of the American breakfast) and several drinks such as tea or coffee, and even “chocolate with hot…milk”, a precursor to what we consider hot chocolate.

On the subject of beverages, we find America’s favorite, orange juice missing from this menu.


Orange Juice becomes a staple of the american breakfast in the 1920s and is lauded as a health drink, it is during this era that it becomes tied to breakfast, and is served alongside the aforemented foods along in hotels and more importantly, in trains.

MICHIGAN CENTRAL 1941, by Justin Nystrom

Trains, one of the primary modes of long form transportation prior to the advent of our highway system and airplanes, were essential in the creation and wide spread consistency of the American breakfast.  not just entirely trains, you can thank boat travel as well, but these modes of transportation are the reason our breakfast becomes more streamlined. If you look at a menu from the U.S.M.S Philadelphia in 1910, you can see that the luxury foods are still present, but are slowly become less of the mainstay as easier to preserve and quicker to create meals become more of a mainstay of the menu, you see things like Grilled ham, all sorts of eggs, a variety of quickfire rolls and cakes (oat, wheat and pan) muffins, and hash become more popular. The rise of the popularity of these items would suggest that the diner, while they still have a penchant for fresh made food, do not need the decadent breakfast of the mid nineteenth century and have instead turned towards convenience. These items that rise in popularity can be made quickly, stored in abundance for longer periods of time (salted meats, mixes and ingredients for cakes and breads) and can better serve the growing appetite for speed and convenience which fueled the Aamerican railway industry. In addition to this, these products are not only easier to preserve and able to be stored more effectively, they are more widely available, and lack the consistency issues of these higher value cuts of meat and fancy fish breakfasts. By eliminating this consistency issue, they are able to serve a much more streamlined menu and focus more on quality that they can control.


To further this point, when looking at an actual railway, you discover this theory to hold up, a 1939 menu from the Southern Pacific Railroad shows breakfast has been incredibly streamlined, a menu selection of a few fruits, like grapefruit, cantaloupe or baked prunes, cereal in cream, ham or bacon with eggs, corned beef hash, muffins and toast, all things that could pretty easily be found in a modern diner, bar the baked prunes. Now this menu is from a chartered trip by the American Library Association, but I believe the fact that the menu is nearly identical to something you would find today, shows that our appetite for quickfire and convenient breakfasts has not gone away, and has in fact remained the pantheon for which breakfast stands on today, all the items we come to love with breakfast are relatively simple, and are either made with ingredients on hand or leftovers, to create something quick and easy to start our day with.


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