Eating History: A Brief History of Waffles in America

Next time you eat a waffle taco, remember the pioneers that paved the way for this fine moment in food history.

Chatham, Waffle iron, 1800-1850. New-York Historical Society.

Chatham, Waffle iron, 1800-1850. New-York Historical Society.

Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.

Next week, Taco Bell releases its waffle taco, which has been hailed by many fast-food fanatics as the most brilliant invention since…well, the Doritos Tacos Locos. But it’s worth remembering that Taco Bell never would have been able to market such a meal without the glorious invention of the waffle iron.

According to Antique Electric Waffle Irons 1900-1960: A History of the Appliance Industry, evidence of waffles being sold on the street stretches all the way back to 1603, but the treat first came to America with Dutch immigrants to New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in the 17th century. Back then, the typical waffle iron was a cast-iron–hinged device that was held over an open fire. In Directions for Cookery (1840), Eliza Leslie writes, “In buying waffle irons do not choose those broad shallow ones that are to hold four at a time, as the waffles baked in them are too small too thin and are never of a good shape.”

It wasn’t until the later 19th century that home stove tops became common, and stove-top waffle irons became available. The first patent for one was issued to Cornelius Swartwout of Troy, NY on August 24, 1869, which is why August 24 is National Waffle Day (so mark your calendars). In 1911, General Electric developed a prototype for the first electric waffle iron.

America’s love for waffles was liekly strong even before every kitchen had a waffle iron. I found some evidence of this predilection in the New-York Historical Society’s library. In the Robinson Family’s personal cookbook from the 1800s, there are recipes for both Hard Waffles and Soft Waffles (the Soft Waffles involve yeast and milk), to satisfy anyone’s waffle preferences. And in 1831, the poem “The Buckwheat Cake” by Henry Pickering was printed in the New-York Evening Post—an ode to griddle cakes, of which we can all agree waffles represent the superior form.

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