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The gallon loaf

Summary:
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to be the largest of the standard sizes specified in legislation like the Western Australian Bread Act which was only repealed in 2004, AFAICT.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,

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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to be the largest of the standard sizes specified in legislation like the Western Australian Bread Act which was only repealed in 2004, AFAICT.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.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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