How The French Government Created The Shape Of Baguettes (And We Thank Them For It)

Pretty much everyone has eaten a baguette at some point. One of the national symbols of France (although, funny enough, the single largest consumer of baguettes in the world isn't France, it's Algeria), baguettes are one of the most iconic bread products in the world. Mention the name, and it's impossible not to conjure up a mental image of a long, crusty loaf of bread. It's hard to think of a more iconic French food.

The baguette's most obvious identifying feature, is its long, thin shape. It means you can't really use a baguette for traditional American side-cut sandwiches, but you can basically do anything else with it. It works as a vehicle for hors d'oeurves, as a topper on French onion soup, in sandwiches cut lengthwise, and even as a dipping vessel. 

Well, it turns out that the baguette's distinctive shape comes — indirectly, at least — by French governmental edict.

The government didn't create the baguette's popularity on purpose

So, how did the baguette wind up looking like that? Baguettes date to sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century (reports are conflicted on when, exactly). But it was during the early 20th century that their popularity took off. 

In 1920, in an effort to avoid overwork for its citizens, the French government passed an edict stating that bakers couldn't start their shifts before 4 AM or work past 10 PM. That might seem reasonable at first glance — and for most jobs, it would be. But the problem is that those wee hours are kind of the prime bread-making sweet spot if you want to have your tasty baked products ready for the morning. (Bread needs time to rise, after all.)

As a result, bakers started baking their bread into long, thin shapes. That way, more of the dough would be exposed to heat at one time, and thus bake much more quickly. It was a clever way to produce the same amount of bread in less time.

France's history with iconic bread products isn't what you might think

Despite being considered an indelibly French product important enough to be given UNESCO heritage status, baguettes really saw their popularity explode in the past hundred years. Supposedly, the baguette's popularity has been waning in recent years, but that trend seems a bit ephemeral. It's hard to imagine a product with such an iconic reputation receding too far from the French collective consciousness.

Funnily enough, though, certain bread products you might associate with France didn't actually come from the country to begin with. Everyone thinks croissants are French because of the name, but they're originally from Austria. The kipferl is a traditional Austrian pastry dating to the 13th century, but it only achieved wide popularity in France when an Austrian artillery officer named August Zang started a bakery in France in 1839. 

Though the kipferl had come in a variety of shapes (including the modern crescent), it was the crescent shape that ultimately caught on in France — hence the name.