The Ward Bakery Company was founded in 1849, in a small bakery on Broome Street, in Manhattan. Eighty years later, the company was the largest commercial bakery in America, serving most of the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest.
The company boasted in all of their advertising that no human hand ever touched their signature Tip Top bread as it made its way from bags of ingredients down to the finished wrapped and sealed product. It was all automated, even in 1911, when their Bronx and Brooklyn factories opened for business.
The details of the Ward family and their baking history can be found in Part One and Part Two. Robert and George Ward, the grandsons of the company founder had taken the company well beyond James Ward’s wildest dreams.
In the process, they had become very rich, able to indulge in their favorite pastime – baseball. Rich men don’t play baseball, they own teams, and the Ward brothers were partners in their ownership of the Brooklyn Federals team, one of the teams in the upstart Federal Baseball League. They bought the team in 1914.
The Brooklyn Feds were nicknamed the Tip Tops, after the company’s best -selling product. The name stuck and was adopted by the team and its owners. The Ward brothers rebuilt the stadium at Washington Park, in Park Slope, on 4th Avenue for the league to play in.
1915 was a watershed year for the company and the Ward family. The Federal League disbanded that year, ending the history of the Tip Tops. It was just as well for them, they weren’t very good. Ward’s also opened their gigantic factory in Newark, New Jersey that year. It was the largest bakery in the country, and looked like the other Wards operations – white glazed tile exterior, with new-Classical details.
That same year, in November, Robert Ward died of a heart attack at the age of 73. The guiding leader of the company was gone, his seat left to his younger brother George. Robert’s son William, a young man with big plans, was also at his side.
But it must not have been easy to work for family, and William split with the company in 1921 to start a new company. William was his great-grandfather’s son. His new bakery was called the United Bakeries, and in a year, he had taken over several other smaller bakeries, and had his eye on Wards.
In 1922, the United Bakeries bought the Campbell Baking Company of Kansas City, Schults Bakeries of New York City, and his uncle’s Ward Baking Company. In 1924 he sold the Arkady Yeast business that had been developed in Ward’s laboratories to Fleischmann’s Yeast.
While all of this merging was going on, Ward’s was in trouble. They were having union problems in several of their plants.
Union members were boycotting Ward’s products in Chicago and Auburn, IL. Ward’s had refused to sign a union agreement in Newark. In 1923, they broke a national union agreement. That caused a nationwide strike of Tip Top Bread, and the company that made it.
As the union issues were slowly resolved, William Ward was still buying up companies. United Bakeries bought the Wagner Bakeries of Detroit in 1924. In 1925, William changed the company name from United Bakeries to the Continental Baking Company.
That year he also made one of the most important purchases in the American bakery world. He bought Taggart Baking, of Indianapolis, the makers of Wonder Bread.
Taggart had developed Wonder bread for their local market in 1921. The name and the iconic bright balloon logo were inspired by the balloons released at the Indianapolis Speedway. When Continental bought the company, they were able to make the bread and its imagery national.
By 1926, Ward’s empire had grown so big, the government got involved. Fearing an anti-trust monopoly, the Justice Department forced Ward to break up into three separate and independent companies; Continental Baking, General Baking and Ward Foods.
Continental, which was now making Wonder bread, continued to expand, building more plants, including a large new plant in Buffalo, NY. They were now so big an operation the classic Ward Bakery tradition of white factories was a thing of the past. The buildings were now a mix of old and new plants, of all different kinds of brick and materials.
Wonder bread changed, as well in the ‘30s, as well. It was one of the first breads to be factory sliced. The company guaranteed freshness in every slice or your money back. The only time the bread was not sliced was during World War II, when all slicing machinery was taken to be melted down for the war effort. There was no factory sliced bread from anyone during the war.
Around the same time they began slicing the bread; Continental introduced Hostess Brand as its bakery division, offering cakes, cookies and other baked goods. Their newest offering in the early 1930s was a little snack cake called the Twinkie. It would be their most iconic product, and made millions for the company. It was the greatest thing since, well… sliced bread.
William Ward died in 1928. His brother Charles died within a couple of years. There was only one Ward left in the hierarchy of the business, Ralph. D. Ward, George Ward’s son, and William’s cousin. The running of the operation moves on to Julian M. Livingston, who is now Vice President and General Manager.
In the 1940s, Wonder bread was one of the first enriched breads. Vitamins and minerals were added to the white bread, which was notorious for its lack of nutrition. Enriched bread greatly reduced diseases such as beriberi and pellagra. Soon most companies followed. Wonder played up the vitamins and minerals in its advertising, famously stating that “Wonder builds strong bodies.”
Continental Bakeries was based in New York from 1923 to 1984. The company headquarters was in Hoboken, NJ. Ralph Ward died in 1953 in an auto accident. The further history of the Hostess Brand can be found here.
Back in Brooklyn, the Ward Bakery building on Pacific Street closed as a bakery in 1995. The equipment was sold, and part of the building became a storage facility. The large windows that Robert Ward had loved so much were filled in with cement blocks.
When it was announced that Bruce Ratner had acquired the vast acreage known now as Atlantic Yards, it was hoped that a campaign could be launched to save the Ward factory, as well as several other historic industrial buildings in his AY footprint.
Local preservationists rallied to put the buildings on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, and urged Ratner to utilize the buildings in his Atlantic Yards plan. As we know, that fell on deaf ears, and the Ward Bakery was demolished for a parking lot and “interim staging area.”
As Joni Mitchell so eloquently sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” The Ward Bakery was one of the most important industrial buildings in Brooklyn. It’s gone. It really didn’t have to be destroyed; it could have been repurposed for housing, even for parking, as a parking garage.
One can only hope that Ward’s Bakery and other iconic and important buildings lost in our city over the years are the sacrifices necessary to insure that we don’t continue to destroy our heritage. The Ward Bakery, cleaned up and repurposed, could have been one of the shining lights of the entire development; a “snow-white temple of cleanliness.” Now it is just a memory.