Get ready to celebrate because this year marks the 20th anniversary of National Pretzel Day! This is a holiday, first declared in Pennsylvania, where pretzel lovers throughout the nation pay homage to their favorite twisted treat on Apr. 26. With reportedly 80 percent of pretzel production from 45 factories here in the Keystone State, it’s only fitting this national day of pretzel commemoration originated in PA!
A Bit of Pretzel History
While Pennsylvania and Pennsylvanians have fully embraced pretzels for centuries, the pretzel’s origin story begins in Europe, specifically Italy (or perhaps France, no one is quite sure), during the seventh century. As the story goes, a monk wanted to craft a treat for young children. Using some leftover bread dough and being a monk, he came up with a design suggesting arms in prayer. Voila! The mighty, but humble pretzel, it was invented by a monk, after all, was born!
It wasn’t long before pretzel’s fame took off, crossing the Alps and becoming a highly prized treat especially in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany. The pretzel was so loved by German bakers, it was even added to the bakery guild’s crest in the 12th century. Fast forward to the 17th and 18th centuries when people from Germany started to settle in southeastern Pennsylvania, bringing their homeland’s traditions and recipes with them. It wasn’t long before home kitchens throughout the area were churning out pretzels for a family treat.
Julius Sturgis and The First U.S. Pretzel Factory
The production of pretzels likely would have remained the purview of home kitchens but for the entrepreneurial spirit of one Pennsylvania baker who saw the pretzel’s potential as a promising commercial enterprise. Julius Sturgis was that baker and entrepreneur. According to family lore, Sturgis was given a pretzel recipe by a man who was down on his luck in thanks for a meal. After Sturgis’s first batch was a hit with his family and then became a much sought-after item sold in his bakery, Sturgis decided to go all out, built an addition onto his home in Lititz, and opened the first commercial pretzel factory in 1861. And the rest, as they say, is history!
The Sturgis family involvement with pretzels didn’t end in Lititz. Following in his famed grandfather’s footsteps and keeping the Sturgis family tradition of pretzel making alive, grandson Marriott (aka “Tom”) opened his own pretzel factory in the city of Reading in 1946. Now located in nearby Shillington, the Tom Sturgis Pretzels factory continues to produce pretzels using time-honored techniques in this modern world.
Reading PA: The Pretzel Capital of the U.S.
The city of Reading and the surrounding area has long been synonymous with pretzel production. At one time, there reportedly more than two dozen pretzel factories in operation, earning Reading the title, “Pretzel Capital of the U.S.” While the city may no longer be the only game in town (or the U.S.). when it comes to today’s pretzel production, a fair amount of pretzels are still lovingly made here by a variety of companies including Bachman, Tom Sturgis, Unique Pretzels, and Faller’s.
If making and baking marvelous pretzels weren’t enough, Reading can also lay claim to being home to the first automated pretzel twisting machine. Up until 1935, pretzel twisting was still being done by hand with expert pretzel makers twisting roughly 240 pretzels an hour. The Reading Pretzel Machinery company changed all that. Instead of individual pretzel workers twisting 250 pretzels an hour by hand, the new machine could twist roughly that same amount in a minute, leading to the really large-scale commercial production of pretzels.
A Pretzel Tour and More
Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery
Visit Julius Sturgis’s original pretzel bakery to see where America’s pretzel magic first began. Tour the original bakery to see the ovens built by Julius Sturgis, watch bakers twist old-fashioned soft pretzels by hand, and learn about the history of pretzel baking in America. The tour includes a hands-on lesson in pretzel twisting using a flour and water mixture. Be sure to stop in the gift shop to take home some delicious treats and souvenirs.
2. Tom Sturgis Pretzels Retail Store
While you can’t tour the Tom Sturgis Pretzels factory, you can pick up some of their freshly baked pretzels treats at their retail store. Looking for the perfect gift for your favorite pretzel lover? The shop offers a Bake Your Own Pretzels Gift Basket, complete with pretzels to enjoy while you bake your own soft pretzels!
3. Foltz’s Pretzels at Reading Farmers Market
Given PA’s long history of pretzel making, Foltz’s Pretzels is definitely a new kid on the block. Founded in 2004, their expertly twisted, hand rolled, buttery, and delicious pretzels have steadily gained a Foltz fanatics following since they first opened shop at the Reading Farmers Market. Stop by their original location or one of their other locales throughout southeastern PA to taste for yourself their soft, tender and tasty pretzel goodness!
4. Philly Pretzel Factory
Where better to establish a pretzel factory than in Philadelphia, a land of true pretzel devotees? After all, Philadelphians reportedly consume a whopping 12 pounds of pretzels each year, which is far more than any other pretzel-loving locale. Realizing what a proverbial gold mine Philadelphia could be, the owners/founders of the Philly Pretzel Factory opened their first pretzel bakery and shop in the city’s Mayfair section. Now with close to 150 locations, visit their original store where their pretzel magic all began!
5. Auntie Anne’s Pretzel Field Trip
No story about Pennsylvania and pretzels would be complete without including Auntie Anne’s pretzels. Now an icon of the pretzel world with nearly 1,300 locations and a presence in all 50 states, Auntie Anne’s started 35 years ago right here in PA with a single stand at a local farmers market. It wasn’t long before word of her out-of-this-world delicious pretzels spread and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. For a fun time, contact your local Auntie Anne’s to see about booking a Field Trip to Auntie Anne’s for some hands-on pretzel fun!
6. Pretzel Park in Manayunk
Prepare a pretzel picnic with your favorite PA pretzels to enjoy dining in the great outdoors at Pretzel Park. Created in 1928, the park has long held the moniker “Pretzel Park” despite its official name of Manayunk Park. Perhaps it was because of the park’s pretzel shaped sidewalks and/or pretzel sellers who sold their wares in the park, but for whatever reason, the unofficial name has remained through the decades. With a farmers market held most Saturdays and a pretzel statue, the park is the perfect place to relax and enjoy some pretzely treats!
To learn about PA’s food scene, check out the visitPA website. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more PA inspiration. Don’t forget to sign up for our monthly Happy Thoughts e-newsletter so you never miss an update.