The meaty origins of the sandwich


On this day that we feast on leftovers from last night or this afternoon, let us pay fond tribute to John Montagu.

Montagu, who died in 1792 at the age of 73, was the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. Known to be a gambler, Montagu reportedly hated to leave the gaming tables even to eat. During one 24-hour game in 1762, he called to the servants to bring him meat between two slices of bread. That way, he could keep his fingers from getting greasy and ruining the cards. His gambling friends saw what he did and thought it was a grand idea. They asked the servants to bring “the same as Sandwich.”

And thus the sandwich was born. As we put our own meat between slices of bread today, we should acknowledge Montagu for his great contribution to mankind.

As it turns out, it was the only worthwhile thing the man ever did.

Born into his title, he lived exceedingly well his entire life with no income whatsoever. Every penny he spent — and he spent a good many — he borrowed from wealthier friends. Much of this money, of course, was spent gambling, and thus was indirectly responsible for the invention of the sandwich. So that’s something. Much of the rest of the money was spent on women, including the opera singer Martha Ray, with whom he had a long affair beginning when she was 17 and he was 44. They began seeing each other while his wife was descending into madness.

Montagu dropped out of Cambridge (that’s not unusual for the aristocracy of the time) and went on to hold a number of jobs in the government. A great number of jobs. A truly shockingly large number of jobs. Among the most important ones, he was First Lord of the Admiralty three times, Secretary of State for the Northern Department twice, and Postmaster General once.

In many of these jobs, his critics accused him of corruption, though nothing was proven. After his death, someone — no one now seems to know who — joked that his epitaph should read “Seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little.”

It was while serving as commander in chief of the North American Station in the Royal Navy that he made his biggest impact on this country. He was the man in charge of British ships during the Boston Tea Party, he was the man who implemented and enforced England’s subsequent closing of the harbor as punishment.

John Adams heard stories about him and his reputation for constant cursing. In late 1772, he noted in his diary that “a Porter, a Shew Black or Chimney Sweeper would be ashamed of the coarse, low, vulgar, Dialect of this Admiral Sea Officer.” Adams went on to call him “a Beast of Prey,” and wrote “His brutal, hoggish Manners are a Disgrace to the Royal Navy, and to the Kings Service.”

Adams wasn’t the only one. In 1775, pro-independence poet Philip Freneau published “A Political Litany,” in which he called on God to deliver us “from hot-headed Montague, mighty to swear/The little fat man with his pretty white hair.”

Montagu was an enthusiastic member of The Hell Fire Club, an anti-religion group devoted to the pleasures of the flesh. He claimed particularly to specialize in seducing virgins, saying he reveled in “the corruption of innocence, for its own sake.” It is not for nothing that he was often referred to as “the insatiable earl.”

He did do one other decent thing in his life besides inventing the sandwich, or at least historically important. When in the admiralty, he funded the expeditions of Capt. James Cook; in return, Cook named the Sandwich Islands (now called Hawaii) after him. That didn’t work out so well for Cook, who was eventually killed by native Hawaiians when he tried to take their king hostage.

Once, he got into a famous argument with his former friend, John Wilkes. Montagu said, “”You will die, sir, either on the gallows or from the pox.” And Wilkes responded, “That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”

So as you eat a sandwich today, think at least briefly about John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. His creation brought happiness to untold millions. He was also immoral, corrupt, and widely hated by pretty much everyone.

Contact Daniel Neman at or 419-724-6155.