By Candace Perry.
In 1951, the National Pretzel Bakers’ Institute presented the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Lititz, Lancaster County with a plaque honoring it as “the first pretzel bakery in the New World.” That’s quite a strong statement. There’s a story here, and it might be one of survival and longevity rather than who was first.
Pretzel lore in Lititz has been a powerful part of community identity, particularly in the early twentieth century. The preservation of the town’s pretzel heritage made it the center for the “first pretzel bakery” honors. Undeniably there are roots for pretzel-making in the community related to the development of the hard pretzel in the mid-nineteenth century. It can be challenging, however, to sort through what is historical fact or local lore.
Soft pretzels were an old European tradition and part of most bakers’ repertoires. Before the Civil War, Pennsylvania bakers advertised soft pretzels along with their other baked goods. In August of 1853, the editor of the Miner’s Journal in Pottsville, Schuylkill County received a giant pretzel from “Some of De Gals of Alt Barks” following his review of a circus in Reading that did not have a clown. The “Gals” stated in their accompanying note that their circus did indeed have a “Glown” and that a circus otherwise was like a “bretzel without its salt.” In a postscript, the Gals commented on their pretzel, “He is not a very nice shape, but dat makes nossin out – he is goot.” Certainly, that pretzel was one of the large soft varieties that bakers still make today.
Getting back to Lititz. Lititz was originally a Moravian community and closed to non-Moravians in terms of property ownership until 1855. Johann Wilhelm Rauch (1790-1863), originally a weaver in Lititz, is said in some accounts to have been asked to take up baking by the Moravian church. His bakeshop and confectionary were located at 69 Main Street. Rauch is believed to have made the first pretzels in Lititz, possibly before 1830, and responsible for accidentally making the hard pretzel.
Lititz is probably best known for the Sturgis Bakery located at 219 Main Street. Julius Sturgis (1835-1897), also a member of the Moravian Church but of English Quaker roots, established a commercial pretzel bakery in 1861. Sturgis has been recorded as being an assistant to Rauch and also as acquiring the bakery from Rauch’s son, Henry. Lititz or Moravian pretzels, as they were often called, became a recognizable brand that shopowners cheerfully advertised.
Benjamin Lichtenthaeler (1817-1893), Moravian-born and from Lititz, left the village for Reading, Berks County, and in 1860 opened a steam pretzel bakery at 32 South 3rd Street. In the 1860 United States census, Lichtenthaeler is listed as a baker in the southwest ward of Reading. His 23-year-old son Charles is also listed as a baker. Interestingly, Julius Sturgis is listed as a day laborer in Lititz in the 1860 census and was 25 years old.
The type of pretzel Lichtenthaeler was making in his ovens was most likely the new and popular hard pretzel. These pretzels were frequently called “steam pretzels,” “cracker pretzels,” or “steam cracker pretzels.” These bakeries made pretzels and possibly some forms of crackers exclusively. Lichtenthaeler’s family took over the bakery before his death. By 1895 there was an attempt to distribute the pretzels more widely, as ads for “Lichtenthaeler’s pretzels” in Wilkes-Barre and Pottsville attest. At some point, possibly even before the turn of the century, the bakery shut down.
Was it the Lititz bretzel or the “Alt Barks” Reading pretzel that was first in the hearts of Dutchmen bellying up to the bar for “zwei lager und ein pretzel”? Both towns enjoy a long and beloved association with the delicious Dutch treat. Sturgis, however, is certainly the winner in terms of longevity.
Tom Sturgis Pretzels, manufactured outside of Reading, are the direct descendants of Julius Sturgis’ Lititz bakery. Unique Pretzels of Reading, loved by many for their texture and taste, have been made by the Spannuth family in the city since 1921. For true pretzel connoisseurs, it’s Shuey’s Pretzels, made in Lebanon in their little shop on Lehman Street since 1928, and available there and at the Lebanon Farmer’s Market. Lebanon also has a long and distinguished pretzel history, and the Shuey pretzel is the delectable descendant of this heritage.
Make your own pretzels
Pennsylvania Dutch folk artist Rachel Yoder made this vegan pretzel recipe with her family. Non-vegans can make substitutions, and they will probably be equally as delicious! The pretzels bring to mind what the “Gals of Alt Barks” may have baked 170 years ago.
Locals have enjoyed pretzels in numerous ways – pretzels and vanilla ice cream still is a summer treat. A very old favorite is simply “pretzel soup”. The dish was even described in old cookbooks. The “recipe” below is in Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book of Fine Old Recipes (Reading, PA: Culinary Arts Press, 1936) p. 18.
Pretzel Soup (Shrdreis’l Suppee)
Heat a bowl of milk for each person to be served. To each bowl of milk, add a small piece of butter and serve. At the table each person should break up enough large soft or soda pretzels to fill the bowl. Butter thin pretzels may also be served.
Candace Kintzer Perry is curator of collections at Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center.