Reading, well-deservedly, was known as the Pretzel Capital of the World by 1948. Its pretzel bakeries were producing one-third of all the pretzels baked in the United States. The earliest bakery to open in Reading, was on Apple Street in the 1860’s, owned by Benjamin Lichtenhaler who was born in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Julius Sturgis, also from Lititz, is credited with opening the first commercial pretzel company in the United States in 1861 in Lititz; later moving the enterprise to Berks County in 1924. His plant produced the first hard pretzels. The original recipe belonged to the Moravians. Other pretzel companies followed as the demand for pretzels increased. The Reading Pretzel Machinery Company was founded in 1935, who produced machinery to automate pretzel production–since up to that point pretzel makers did everything by hand!
The origin of the pretzel can be traced back to a 7th century monk in Europe using it to reward children who knew their prayers, calling it “pretiolas”–“little rewards” in Latin. The shape of the pretiola suggested a pair of folded hands. Later, they were taken over the Alps into Austria and Germany were the name became “bretzel”. In Vienna, pretzel bakers were awarded a coat of arms for uncovering a Turkish plot in the 1500’s. From its early use as a reward for prayers, it became so popular in the Middle Ages that it was a symbol of good luck, and the shape was used as a marriage knot in Switzerland. Pretzels were also supposed to ward off evil.
Pretzels have been popular with Americans for centuries Some believe that the Pilgrims brought pretzels with them on the Mayflower. However, there’s little doubt that early German settlers to Pennsylvania (who we think of as the Pennsylvania Dutch) were baking pretzels in their home kitchens in the early 19th century.
Although Reading no longer produces one-third of the pretzels in the United States, Pennsylvania remains the pretzel center of America, accounting for 80% of the pretzels made in this country. In 2003, Governor Ed Rendell declared April 26 as Pretzel Day in Pennsylvania in recognize “the importance of the pretzel to the state’s history and economy.” The pretzel still remains an icon for Reading and Berks County. Reading mayoral keys (often called “Keys to the City”) have a pretzel shape at one end! We have a number of these keys in our collection, including the one above from Joseph Kuzminski’s term in the mid-1970s.
Article Written & Researched by Gail Corvaia
Sources and Further Reading:
- “Pennsylvania’s Twist,” Pennsylvania Center for the Book–Pretzels, 2009, http://pabook2.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/Pretzels.html.
- “The Pretzel: A Twisted History,” History.com, April 24, 2015, http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/the-pretzel-a-twisted-history.