The gallon loaf

by John Q on January 6, 2024

I’ve been working a bit on inflation and the highly problematic concept of the ‘cost of living’ (shorter JQ: what matters is the purchasing power of wages, not the cost of some basket of goods). As part of this, I’ve been looking at how particular prices have changed over time, focusing on basics like bread and milk.

One striking thing that I found out is that, until quite late in the 20th century, the standard loaf of bread used to calculate consumer price indexes in Australia weighed 4 pounds (nearly 2kg). That’s about as much as three standard loaves of sliced bread. Asking around, this turns out to be the largest of the standard sizes specified in legislation like the Western Australian Bread Act which was only repealed in 2004, AFAICT.

Going back a century or so further, the Speenhamland system of poor relief in England specified the weekly nutrition requirements of a labouring man as a ‘gallon loaf” of bread, made from a gallon (about 5 litres) of flour, and weighing 8.8 pounds (4kg). Bread was pretty much all that poor people got to eat, so the amount seems plausible.

But why one huge loaf rather than, say seven modern-size loaves? And turning that question around, why are our current loaves so much smaller?

I haven’t been able to find anything about this. Looking for images of these gallon loaves is difficult, because of the popularity of ‘loaf tanks’ made in the shape of bread loaves and with a capacity measured in (US) gallons.

Whenever I see a development like this, I think about shrinkflation, the process of reducing the size of a product as a surreptitious way of increasing the unit price. But shrinkflation is ultimately a cyclical process. When the standard size has been shrunk as far as it will go, it is replaced by a new ‘jumbo’ or ‘economy’ size, the same as the original standard size.

So, my best guess is that it is all to do with that proverbially marvellous invention, sliced bread. Sliced bread requires a standard size, and small is easier to handle. Also (guessing here), sliced bread may not keep as well, so we buy smaller loaves more frequently.

I’ve had some useful responses from Bluesky and Mastodon on this (I shudder to think how XTwitter would respond if I were still there), and now I’m throwing it over to my newsletter and blog readers. Any info would be appreciated.



Thomas Jørgensen 01.06.24 at 6:54 am

Eh.. It seems pretty obvious that this is in very large part about household size ?

If you have a household of 3 generations, or for the upper crust, a more nuclear family with a run of staff, a ginormous loaf will be gone in a day or two and buying smaller ones is pointless.


J-D 01.06.24 at 7:17 am

I’m guessing wildly, but is there any chance it has anything to do with decreasing household size?

Now that I think about it, I remember seeing a reference in John Singleton’s memoirs to an advertising campaign for a loaf of sliced bread with a smaller number of slices than the regular size (without a commensurate reduction in price), pitching it as ‘day-sized’ (or something similar), on the theory that people don’t like throwing away unused bread and would therefore like a loaf which had only as many slices as the presumed typical family would consume in a day.

If people (or a significant fraction of them) do buy and consume bread on the basis of a loaf a day, then it does seem smaller households could imply smaller loaves.


Matt 01.06.24 at 12:20 pm

I happened to be reading a book on war in the ancient world recently, which gave a description of the rations of a Roman legionary as being, per day, “about a litre and quarter of wheat [giving just under 1.5kg of bread, biscuts, or pordige], some meat (fresh, salted, or dried), cheese, vegetables (often onions), salt, and posca, a mixture of water and viniger to drink.” That’s a lot less bread than is suggested above, but of course with some other things. Still, it sounds pretty hard to eat 8.8lb of bread a day for one person, even if that’s most of what you have to eat, so I wonder if something is off there.


Francis Spufford 01.06.24 at 1:43 pm

Not of direct relevance, but the last piece of work my father Peter Spufford did before he died – economic and monetary historian of the European Middle Ages – was a study of the changing sizes of loaves. If I remember rightly, the prices of these had been fixed by something called the Assize of Bread, so you could only have penny, half-penny or farthing loaves in medieval England. But the weight of each varied, so you could work backwards from (as it were) physical shrinkflation to get an indirect measure of monetary inflation. Presumably a measure made noisier by individual good and bad harvests.


notGoodenough 01.06.24 at 1:55 pm

First, consider a spherical loaf in a vacuum…

While my real answer would be “no idea!”, I do wonder if “military rations” might also play a role? Going from memory, many these often included 1 pound of bread per day as one of the meals (in theory, of course – not always in actuality), and one gallon bread might be the most efficient way of bulk production. Given that numbers acquired from military provisioning might be the easiest and most reliable to attain, could it be that these were adopted as a benchmark (and then kept as such)?

(probably not – but still, it is amusing to speculate!)


engels 01.06.24 at 2:58 pm

it is all to do with that proverbially marvellous invention, sliced bread

When I was a kid our loaves were delivered by the local baker (a normal rural British thing I believe, not a yuppie thing) but they were never sliced and still pretty small, so I don’t think this can be true.


Cranky Observer 01.06.24 at 4:11 pm

These issues are discussed in Elizabeth David’s _English Bread and Yeast Cookery”. The author includes a lot of references to her sources/research and a bibliography, but it is not an academic book and the discussion is threaded through multiple chapters until one arrives at The Bread Factories and the The Shape and Name of English Loaves – plus reading the recipes and baking instructions for the English cottage loaf specifically.

It boils down to the mass industrialization of bread supply in the UK in the 1945-1960. Although breadmaking had moved from the home to local bakeries as early as the 1200s due to the economy of scale and better quality of bulk doughmaking + large ovens, and larger commercial regional bakeries developed though the 1940s, there was always an element of local control, taste, and variation to the bread – subject in the UK to the various Bread Laws starting in 1266 and continuing through with modern updates in 1953 and 1964.

However from 1945-1960 a Canadian grain magnate started buying up regional bakeries in the UK and consolidating them into much larger super-regional and national bakeries, often fronted by “local shops” that had no mixer or oven but simply sold what came off the lorry, and then moved into supermarkets as those expanded in size and scope. This was made possible by a ruthless standardization and industrialization of daily loaf making using research from both the UK and Australia, which culminated in the Chorleywood process that goes from raw flour and water to a sliced soft white sandwich loaf in 180 minutes [1]. This process requires that there be one and only one shape of loaf pan and that it move through the “shaping” (done with an extruder, so not really shaping), baking, turn-out, and slicing on mass conveyor belts.

The combination of industrial processes and modern marketing/advertising technique led to every household buying standard size sliced white bread loaves that were 0.01 oz above the absolute minimum weight for their Bread Law classification – except for a few “wholemeal cranks” and those who could final actual family operated storefront bakeries. The process of reducing size step-by-step to maintain profit margin whilst capturing regulators and lawmakers to adjust the hard-and-fast bread laws is the usual one followed by the candy, breakfast cereal, coffee, etc industries.

The US followed a similar pattern although due to distance the consolidated bakeries are still somewhat regional, and the post-War exodus of ethnic families from the large cities to the exurbs eventually killed most of the neighborhood [2] bakeries and their variety of types and sizes.

fn1: although I prefer hearth bread when my family asks for a soft white loaf it takes me ~18 hours from first mix to baking, although a longer final rise of another 8 hours in the fridge would be even better

fn2: Stanley Ginsberg of The Rye Baker posted a comment on a bread forum that in Brooklyn neighborhoods of large walkup apartment buildings you can still observe that ever 3rd or 5th building has a loading area and brick chimney signaling that there was once a large bread oven in the basement which was operated by a baker who would sell bread to the residents of the surrounding buildings


maxhgns 01.06.24 at 6:27 pm

Matt: 1.5 kg of bread = 3.4lbs, not 8.8! So, mich easier to eat in a day!


Matt 01.06.24 at 8:54 pm

maxhgns – that’s exactly my point – that the 8.8lb “gallon loaf” that John is talking about seems like too much for one person.


Peter T 01.07.24 at 11:19 am

Before industrial or common domestic ovens, the main cost of baking was fuel, and larger ovens are more efficient. So the poor – and many of the not so poor – would take their dough to the baker. In France one can still see communal ovens in many villages (sometimes still used for community events). A gallon loaf would cost less to bake than several smaller loaves, is my guess.


Blanche Davidian 01.07.24 at 10:49 pm

Please note that the gallon loaf of bread according to our host’s information, was the minimum requirement for a laborer for a week, not a day.


engels 01.08.24 at 12:03 am

In France one can still see communal ovens in many villages

And in parts of the Middle East we’re not talking about:


Doug K 01.08.24 at 5:07 am

Matt, the 8.8lbs of bread was to last a week, not one day. 1.25 pounds of bread a day, with water, isn’t much to hold body and soul together..
It does rather raise the question of how stale the last day’s ration would be. Life on a gallon loaf a week, is preying on my mind..

to Peter T’s point – my wife remembers that on festival days in her father’s Greek village, the roast meats were all cooked in the baker’s wood oven, as few people had ovens of their own. I don’t recall that anyone brought bread to be baked though.

Standardization and profit-seeking as Cranky says, seems the best explanation.


Matt 01.08.24 at 10:26 am

Doug K – you’re right – I’d miss-read that bit of John’s post. Thanks. And, it may have been worse than we might otherwise expect, as for a long time there were big issues of bread being adulterated with sawdust or shreaded paper and the like.


SamChevre 01.09.24 at 3:46 pm

One slight correction: I think the Speenhamland allowance was THREE gallon loaves a week, not one.

From my experience as a bread baker: larger loaves use oven space more efficiently, have less crust relative to crumb, go stale more slowly. If bread is baked in a brick oven (pre-heated, not fired while baking), and is only baked once a week or once every two weeks (because fuel is expensive), and the crust is often burned/ash-covered and barely edible, larger loaves would be the sensible choice. With a continuously-fired oven and more frequent baking, a smaller loaf works well.


clew 01.11.24 at 2:34 am

Seconding the idea that a bigger loaf keeps longer; especially a long-rise, whole grain, one. Hard at the end of the week, but not stale.


Tim Worstall 01.17.24 at 5:20 pm

” If bread is baked in a brick oven (pre-heated, not fired while baking), and is only baked once a week or once every two weeks (because fuel is expensive), ”

This sounds like the reason to me. Looking around rural Portugal you see many cottages each with their own bread oven. The fuel for firing one up is a cost. While I know few who still do bake their own bread I know of one – and they’re certainly not running the oven each day.

The form of the loaf is an “Alentejano” often enough which while perhaps not a gallon isn’t far off. Certainly a big damn loaf which is used to last for some days.

In the cities, the towns, sure, commercially baked, smaller loaves. Daily new supply.

Worth recalling that Portugal is still poorest in Western Europe. Still into the 1970s (the Catholic fascists of Salazar) really a peasant society. Looking here is, in some ways, like looking back in time in richer countries.

From distant memory of rural Italy as a child the home baked bread was similar. Huge loaves in a wood fired oven which was not run every day. Which, through that time telescope, makes a certain amount of sense. I’d not want to have to prove this but my rule of thumb is that rural areas are about 40/50 years behind here in P than they are in I. In terms of that last generation still living off the 1 acre peasant farms finally dying off, the kids moved into the cities (or in the P case, abroad).

That is, rather than it being a function of capitalism as the driving force to smaller loaves, rather a function of “not home production”. To the extent that those are different.

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