Why Gambling Led John Montagu To Invent The Sandwich

Published May 30, 2018

As a serious gambler, he wanted a “food of convenience” that wouldn't disrupt his card game.

John Montagu

Wikimedia Commons John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich.

Ah, the sandwich. It’s found in every child’s lunchbox, as an offering in every office cafeteria, and a go-to in every corner deli. It’s a staple in the cuisines of almost all nations, and no matter the filing, its many different forms have come to grace almost every restaurant, lunchbox, and ballpark in the world (though is a hot dog really a sandwich?)

But, though a sandwich is potentially the world’s most unifying and universal food, how many people know the actual origins? While it’s famous amongst Americans, the inventor of the sandwich (or so he says) is actually British – and, fittingly, titled the Earl of Sandwich.

John Montagu, The Fourth Earl Of Sandwich

Montagu Sketch

Wikimedia CommonsA sketch drawing of John Montagu.

John Montagu was born way back in 1718, in Great Britain. At the age of just 10 years old, he succeeded his grandfather, the Third Earl of Sandwich, and became the Fourth Earl of Sandwich.

His life as the Earl, for the most part, was none too dramatic. As most British diplomats at the time did, he got married, had a mistress, and held several different titles. He is perhaps most remembered for having the Hawaiian Islands named after him; originally, the archipelago was called the Sandwich Islands, though it was later renamed in honor of its native moniker.

He is also remembered for “inventing” the sandwich. At least, according to him.

As the story goes, John Montagu was a fervent gambler and player of cards. During particularly long games, the Earl didn’t like to break for food, but obviously, still wanted to eat. Thus, he thought up a “food of convenience” which would sustain him throughout long gambling games, and be mobile enough to bring to him throughout.

Thus, the sandwich was born.

Montagu’s sandwich of choice was salt beef (corned beef) between two slices of toasted bread, and was likely the first iteration of the modern sandwich as we know it. However, the inspiration likely came from someone else.

After visiting the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe and seeing people using pita pockets and other flatbreads like naan to hold sandwich ingredients, Montagu likely was inspired by their convenience.

Rather than have to sit down for a full meal, these people could eat on the go or while doing something more exciting, like in Montagu’s case, gambling.

Upon returning home, Montagu transferred the idea over to more readily available British ingredients, like salt beef and wheat bread. Then, he began requesting it as his gambling events. Before long, his gambling partners began to request the same, soon referring to the special as “the Sandwich.” Eventually, the name became simply “sandwich.”

Other Sandwich Claims

Corned Beef Sandwich

Wikimedia CommonsA corned beef sandwich, also known as salt beef, the preferred choice of John Montagu.

While John Montagu may claim to have invented the sandwich, the idea of stuffing cheese, meat, or vegetables into bread was hardly a new one.

For centuries before Montagu was born, the Greeks had been using pita pockets to hold cured meats and vegetables. The Arabic and Indian nations had been using naan to hold curry, rice, and other meat dishes as well. And, indeed, Montagu himself witnessed these culinary phenomena on his travels through the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe.

Even across the sea, the concept of putting food into breads and pastries for portability was being used. In the early 18th century, conquistadors in Mexico saw native people putting meat into corn tortillas, and called them “tacos,” named for the tiny hand-rolled sticks of dynamite used in Mexican mines.

Of course, John Montagu’s idea of putting meat between sliced bread had likely never been done before, or at least, no one felt it momentous enough to document. In the end, perhaps the question of who invented the sandwich comes down to your personal definition. As for us, we’re going with Montagu. After all, even if he didn’t invent it, there’s no doubt it was named after him – sandwich was literally in his name.

Next, check out the history of medieval food. Then, learn about John Pemberton, the man who invented Coca Cola.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
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Serena, Katie. "Why Gambling Led John Montagu To Invent The Sandwich." AllThatsInteresting.com, May 30, 2018, https://allthatsinteresting.com/john-montagu. Accessed June 20, 2024.