By Kevin Farrell

How pretzels conquered the streets of Philadelphia

If you grew up in Philadelphia, chances are you remember those brown paper bags of soft pretzels, sold streetside throughout the city.

These aren’t just any soft pretzels, but pretzels baked into tight figure eights.

In fact, 300,000 pretzels were eaten each day in Philadelphia in 1988, according to The New York Times.

What was it about the soft pretzel, as opposed to New York’s sidewalk hot dogs, that really stuck in Philadelphia? How did the soft pretzel become Philly’s most enduring street food?

First, let’s go back – all the way to where and when pretzels originated.

A Catholic monk in southern France or northern Italy crafted the first pretzel during the seventh century.

At the time, the treat was called a pretiola and was served to children as a reward for learning their prayers.

The three holes were meant to evoke the Trinity. The dough folded over itself at the center evoked a pair of praying arms and hands in miniature.

The recipe was likely brought to the New World by German colonists, and the first pretzel bakery was built in Pennsylvania during the 19th century.

In 1861, Julius Sturgis reopened a bakery first built in 1784 in Lititz, turning it into a Pretzel House.

One of Sturgis’ youngest sons, Lewis, ran the business until the 1970s. It remains in the family – and is still in operation – today.

The first recorded pretzel sale in Philadelphia proper happened in the 1820s, when Daniel Christopher Kleiss began selling them on the city’s sidewalks, where they still loom large.

But it wasn’t until 1933 that Philly’s twist on the treat took on its long-lasting iconic shape.

Photo courtesy of J. Varney for VISIT PHILADELPHIA

Technological innovations resulted in automated pretzel-making machines. In order to fit efficiently onto conveyor belts, the two-holed, rectangular shape was adopted.

They're sold all over the city, from bakeries and restaurants to biergartens and convenience stores.

Photo courtesy of J. Varney for VISIT PHILADELPHIA

You don’t ever have to seek a pretzel out in Philadelphia. A pretzel, instead, will find you.



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