Bagels: A Concise History

Joined Jul 24, 2001
Inspired by the two lovely threads about Passover , I thought to check the History of Bagels.

The origin of Bagel is an issue of debate among Food Historians.
Bagel is of Jewish origin of course and the first ones can be traced back to the 17th century in Poland.

There are two major theories on the origin of bagels.

According to the first one, the first bagels were prepared by the Jewish communities that lived in South Germany and migrated to Poland.
The word seems to derive from the Yiddish word "beygal" from the German dialect word "beugel" meaning ring or bracelet.According to Claudia Roden in her great book The Book of Jewish Food : An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, " because of their shape- with no beginning and no end- bagels, symbolize the eternal circle of life"

Other historians, although they agree that Poland is the birth place of Bagels , they have other suggestions for the etymology. They think that the word derives from the word "beigen" .German for to bend and the bagel is a descendant of pretzel. They attribute the invention of bagels to the Romans without justifying it though.

In the "Community Regulations of Krakow", Poland, in the year 1610, we have the first written reference of the word bagel. According to the same source, bagels should be given to any woman in childbirth. Leo Rosten, who mentions this information in his book " Joys of Yiddish gives two explanations,the word either comes from the German word beugel, meaning a round loaf of bread or it derives from another German word, bugel, which means a twisted or curved bracelet or ring.

A story, a legend, similar to the one of croissants seem to exist for bagels.
According to another theory, bagels were invented in 1683 by a Jewish baker in Vienna as a thank you gift to King John III Sobiesky of Poland for saving the city from Turkish invaders. The baker, crafted a roll in the shape of a riding stirrup, in honour the king's favourite hobby.The bread's original German name was brugel for stirrup.
But this must be nothing but a nice story because as we saw the first written reference is around 70 years earlier in the Jewish community rules of Krakow.
In this very rules , they use the word without any other definition, that means that anyone who would read it he would know the meaning so, we must assume that the bagels were invented and consumed much earlier.

In United States, the first bagels appeared on Ellis Island at the very beginnings of the 20the century and of course New York became the Bagel city.

If you check The Encyclopaedia of American Food and Drink, you will see that after brought to the States by the first Jewish immigrants "the recipe was fiercely safeguarded. Between 1910 and 1915 the Bagel Baker Local #338 Union was formed in New York City. The union's 300 members took extreme measures to safeguard their secret recipe and techniques by limiting admission to the sons of members exclusively. The bagel bakers worked in teams of four : two made the dough and shaped the bagels; one boiled the bagels;and one baked them. The bakers were paid by piece and usually produced about 6,400 bagels a night.
In the 1960's the Thompson bagel Machine was invented and bagel making shifted into mass production. The bagel machine was capable of producing 200 to 400 bagels an hour. Due to Thompson Bagel Machine, union bakers eventually became non existent" :)

Basic Bibliography

John Nathan, Jewish Cooking in America (Knopf Cooks American)
Alan Davidson,oxford Companion to Food
Craig Clairbone, Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Food Encyclopaedia
John F.Mariani, The Encyclopaedia of American Food & Drink.


Staff member
Joined Oct 7, 2001
Great history lesson! I had always heard the the story about the bagel being created as a thank you gift and they they were made to resemble a stirrup. I love these history lessons!
Joined Jul 24, 2001
Your are welcome :)

Momoreg, Bread is used by many ancient civilizations as a shield of a woman in childbirth against any kind of bad luck or evil :)
It's a kind of phylactery ( I am not certain about the spelling)

In many areas of Greece they still make bread that suppose to protect women.

In my essay I have dedicated a whole chapter on this subject it's very fascinating :)
Joined Jul 31, 2000
This was really a fun read,

Thanks for the lesson Athenaeus. This brings back fond memories of my grandfathers bakery, Pop was known for his incredible Jewish corn bread, Bialys and his bagels.

No one around could make bagels like my grandfather.

I think it was just short of 70 years as a baker when he finally retired.

Sweet memories
Joined Dec 12, 2000
Thanks for the lesson. all I really knew about bagels is that you can either get them New York or Montreal style. well that, plus the fact that they are easy and inexpensive to make. ( we costed out a batch during the baking portion of my cooking course).
Joined Aug 29, 2000
What a lovely post! Thank you, Athenaeus. Momo, shall we send you lots of bagels to cover you for the next 6 weeks? :)
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