Recently, King Arthur flour is having a moment, as people under stay-at-home orders turn to baking to fill time and relieve stress. King Arthur flour has ramped up production and posted recipes, blog entries, and how-to-videos aimed at the quarantine market.
I had actually been thinking about King Arthur flour and planning my own blog entry about it even before the virus hit us. In fact, I’d just picked up the interlibrary loan books I needed when my institution went to remote learning, but the demands of online teaching meant I haven’t been able to blog until now.
King Arthur flour had come up in my Making History class (an introductory course for history majors) as part of our study of medievalism (the appropriation of medieval material in modern contexts). We’d read about American medievalism in Marcus Bull’s Thinking Medieval, which had a passing mention of the Knights of King Arthur, a boys’ organization similar to the Boy Scouts, founded in New England in 1893.1 In class, I asked the students if they were aware of any other Arthurian connections associated with New England, and one student answered right away, “You mean King Arthur flour?” I did. But I didn’t know anything more about the company than the name and that they were based in New England. Time for research!
I knew that Howard Pyle’s illustrated retellings of the King Arthur stories (which I read as a child and which I’m sure influenced my choice of scholarly specialty) dated from around 1900.2 Given that the Arthurian boys’ clubs were founded in 1893, I wondered if the flour company also began around that time and could be seen as an example of a fin-de siècle American fashion for things Arthurian.
It turned out that I was half right. The company was actually founded in Boston in 1790, not 1890, as Henry Wood and Company, selling flour imported from England. They began selling American-grown and milled flour in the 1820s. In 1896, the company, known since 1890 as Sands, Taylor, and Wood, introduced a new, high-end flour. One of the partners, George Wood, had recently attended a play about King Arthur in Boston, and, in the words of the company history published in their 200th anniversary cookbook,3
came away feeling that the values inherent in the Arthurian legends, purity, loyalty, honesty, superior strength and a dedication to a higher purpose, were the values that most expressed their feelings about their new flour. So it was decided that King Arthur would be its symbol.
The new product was introduced at the Boston Food Fair in 1896, promoted by a man dressed in armor riding through the streets of Boston on a horse. An article in the Boston Post described the scene:4
A horseman clad in glittering armor and armed cap-a-pie [head-to-foot] has been creating no small sensation of late as he guided his prancing steed through the streets of the Hub. No stranger contrast can well be imagined than this figure of medieval romance set down in the busy turmoil and traffic of modern Boston.
It seems at first sight that one of Walter Scott’s heroes had come to life again, or, perchance, that a new Don Quixote had arisen to tilt against the deadly trolley.
The Crusaders’ cross gleams on the coat of mail and adorns the silken standard that he bears aloft. It is, in truth, King Arthur come to earth again—the picture of that gallant warrior is literally perfect. The standard bears the legend ‘King Arthur Flour,’ and the inference is obvious—that as King Arthur was a champion without fear and above reproach, so is King Arthur Flour the peerless champion of modern civilization.
The writer makes up in enthusiasm what he lacks in accuracy. Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe (which we also read in Making History) was enormously popular in the nineteenth century and enormously influential in creating the modern understanding of the Middle Ages (which is the reason we read it in Making History), but it has nothing to do with King Arthur—it’s set in England in the late twelfth century, the time of Good King Richard and Bad Prince John.5 Further, King Arthur never went on Crusade, so his depiction with a Crusaders’ cross can’t really be called “literally perfect.” And I’m not at all sure what Don Quixote is doing there. Over a thousand years of history has been compressed into a single medieval moment—King Arthur, Crusaders, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, and Don Quixote all ride through the streets of modern Boston at the same time.
This medieval mashup is also seen in the original King Arthur Flour logo, a version of which still adorns the company’s bags of unbleached flour. In the original version, not only is King Arthur dressed as a Crusader—a Templar, in fact—but in the background you can see palm trees and a desert sun setting behind the walls of a Middle Eastern city.
This discrepancy was eventually noticed by the company, and in the 200th anniversary cookbook, the author, Brinna Sands (married to a fifth-generation member of the Sands family that had been involved with the company since 1840), wrote,6
When our logo was conceived a century ago, the artist inadvertently placed King Arthur in the Middle East as if he were a crusader. King Arthur may have been a crusader, but not in the sense the term is generally accepted. His Crusade was in the land of hill fort “castles’ and ancient oaks which we have substituted for the palm trees and mosques.
The logo is simplified now, with neither palm trees nor ancient oaks in the background. They still celebrate the Arthurian connection, however. The company name was changed from Sands, Taylor and Wood to The King Arthur Flour Company in 1999.7 The commercial product line (sold only in 50-pound bags) includes Sir Galahad (all-purpose), Sir Lancelot (high gluten), and Round Table (low protein) flours. Queen Guinevere, however, has been dethroned, as her namesake product, a bleached cake flour, was discontinued when they developed an unbleached version. The campus in Vermont, where they moved in 1984, is known as Camelot.
I’ll definitely be doing some research on the Arthurian boys’ clubs for a future blog. But now I think I’ll go bake something.