Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde’s The Baker, 1681.  Pretzels are shown with various other types of bread.

Recently a segment on Today spoke of pretzels being eaten in Philadelphia since the early 1700’s, obviously relished by the Germans who settled there.   Areas where pretzel-eating Europeans settled in the U.S. would have continued to make them, but they would have been slow to spread outside those areas until the age of global transportation and communication.

A published account dated pretzel making to the year 610 AD.  Although it has been reposted countless times, there was no source given for that date, and in the absence of documentation, the origins and earliest history of pretzels becomes again conjecture.   

There is proof of pretzel making in medieval paintings and in the emblem of the Baker’s Guild in Germany dating from between 1111 and 1300.  A depiction of a pretzel, or bretzel in German, in Hortus Delicarum places it on the tables of the Biblical King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther in 12th century; however, the food on the table is evidence of what was eaten during the lifetime of the painter, not during the Biblical era.  He was used to seeing and eating pretzels so he painted them. [See illustration] 

Hortus Delicarum  comes from the Southwest German Alsace, today France.  The area changed hands several times politically, however, food customs would have remained constant, and this is where the origin of pretzels plays into German and French culture.  Pretzels seem to have also played into early Italian history.

Pretzels, the well-known German rolls, have never taken hold in this country [England]…in America where in some of the large towns there are great German districts in which the home customs are maintained as much as possible.  Amongst those customs, the eating of Pretzels plays an important part.  – The Epicure.  Nov. 1902.

Julius Sturgis opened the first commercial bakery to make hard pretzels in 1861 in Lititz, Lancaster Co., PA.  The Anderson Pretzel Factory followed in 1889.  Legend has it that the hard pretzel originated in Pennsylvania, possibly during this period. 

A writer claimed in 1890, it had been some 75 years previous [1815] when he first saw the word pretzel in print, and referred to them as New Jersey handcuffs.   

Mary Anne Hines and William Woys Weaver identified one of the earlier Pennsylvania pretzel vendors as Daniel Christopher Kleiss who sold soft pretzels on the streets of Philadelphia in the 1820’s, however, again, they offered no source for that information.  – Hines, Mary Anne, Weaver, William Woys.  The Larder Invaded.  1987.  Philadelphia.  Walsh, William Shepard.  American Notes.  1890.  Philadelphia.

An early 20th century account claims the name came from, “a slight modification of the old German word meaning a chain.  In form the pretzel reminds us of the magic chains of the old German sorceresses.”  – Bray, Frank Chapin.  The Chautauquan.  March 1897.

When we visit Pennsylvania the first thing we do is stop for soft pretzels at Revonah Pretzel Co. in Hanover.  They are soft and chewy, salt sprinkled, and a nostalgic return to his childhood for Martin.  I grew up or, as we say in the South, “was raised” in South Central Tennessee and have no such recollections.  There is a reason for that.

In 1947, Pennsylvania pretzel-makers were putting forth a campaign to introduce pretzels into what they termed, “darkest America—those broad reaches of the South and West where the natives, languishing in barbarism, apparently never heard of pretzels and certainly don’t eat them”. 

Pennsylvania produced more pretzels in the 1940’s than any other state, followed by Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, and California.  Readers will note the lack of Southern states in that line-up.  The method of making them was fairly standard.

An ancient art, pretzel making came to Pennsylvania with the early settlers.  Pretzel history dates back to the third or fourth century.  Their design apparently typified arms crossed in prayer, and it is believed that pretzels were given children as a reward for saying their prayers. 

Pretzels once symbolized bakeries just as striped poles indicate barber shops, and the pretzel was part of the crest of the Bakers Guild.  – Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.  Feb. 1947.

Pretzel dough itself, no matter how the baker shapes it, is pretty much the same everywhere; wheat flour, yeast, salt, water, and maybe a dash of sweetening.  Either in sheets or in strands, the raw dough gets a hot soda dip, which prepares it for a sprinkling of surface salt and makes it take a glaze.  Then it goes into the baking and drying ovens. 

In earlier times, the pretzels were dipped in lye-water, but by the 1940’s that had been replaced with soda water.  “The pretzels are dropped into the lyewater, kept at boiling point.  At first, they will sink, but come to the surface after a few seconds when they are done and must be removed at once with a strainer.  They are immediately placed on the peel, sprinkled with salt, and placed in the oven”.  Thus prepared, the baking time was minimal.

The baking time and the strength of the lyewater in which they were dipped determined the color of the baked pretzels, and different areas had their own preference as to color.  In Wurttemberg and other provinces of Southern Germany they preferred gold or straw yellow.  In Switzerland and Austria they were baked until much darker, and in Elsass-Lorraine [Alsace-Lorraine] and Rhinelands they preferred them even darker.  – Braun, Emil.  The Baker’s Book:  A Practical Hand Book of the Baking Industry.  1902.  NY. 

Pretzel vendor, Junius Henry Browne, The Great Metropolis [New York], 1869.  Note the pretzels on the pole coming out of the basket.

Pretzels were sold by vendors who carried them on long poles and that custom survived into the early 20th century.  Harper’s Weekly indicated that at least in some areas of New York the pretzel vendor did little business and endured extremes of weather.  – Harper’s Weekly.  Vol. 35.  No. 1778.  Jan. 1891.

Carnival scene by Pieter Bruegel, 1559.  Pretzels are seen in the bottom right corner (on the cart, and hanging from the waist of the person just behind the cart.

See:  Allentown Board of Trade.  Past, Present, and Future of the City of Allentown, PA.  1886.  Allentown.