Fleischmann’s is having what can be described as a Betty White moment. After a multi-year hiatus from the spotlight, the legendary yeast manufacturer is once again in high demand.

As clamor for baking essentials continues to rise in the age of COVID-19, many people are becoming acquainted with the Fleischmann’s brand for the first time despite the fact that it’s been around for over 150 years.

“When they started, there was no such thing as sliced bread,” says Rick Oleshak, Vice President of Marketing at AB Mauri North America (Fleischmann’s parent company).

Fleischmann’s has not merely revolutionized the culinary industry throughout its storied century and a half history, the company as well as associated family members have made a mark beyond baking, from media to the major leagues. One son was the possible inspiration for a literary icon and the clan even has a connection with one of the most notorious entrepreneurs of the 21st century.

While you wait for your dough to proof (or for your local grocery store to restock those now precious packets of yeast), we’re serving up some surprising Fleischmann’s facts to chew on.

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From Booze to Bread

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Here’s a rare case where alcohol actually leads to something good. Back in the mid-1800’s, Hungarian immigrants and yeast experts Charles and Maximilian Fleischmann partnered with distiller James Gaff to manufacture whiskey in Cincinnati. But they were eager to take a shot at another venture. Dissatisfied with the quality of bread in America, the brothers traveled to Vienna and returned with a strain of yeast much more favorable for baking. Their younger brother Henry registered its manufacturing process as Patent No. 102,387, a move that would result in plenty of dough (literally and figuratively).

Chain, Chain, Chain

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Our country’s first chain eating establishment did not, in fact, have a Big Mac on the menu. Building on positive word-of-mouth from its splashy debut at the 1876 World’s Fair Exposition in Philadelphia, The Vienna Model Bakery (established as a showcase for Fleichmann’s yeast) set up shop in multiple cities across the country. “What had started as a marketing tool became America’s first chain restaurant,” writes P. Christian Klieger in his book “Fleischmann’s at 150: Still the One.”

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The New Yorker founder Harold Ross pitched the merits of his then fledgling publication to pal Raoul Fleischmann (Charles’ nephew) during a game of poker in 1926. Convinced of its potential, Raoul successfully invested roughly $700,000 of his family’s money (more than $10M today) to give the high-brow reader a much-needed financial boost. He later presided over the magazine as vice president, president, chairman, and publisher until his death in 1969. His involvement gained him intimate access to the literary giants of the era, and  he was a regular guest at the famed Algonquin Club’s Round Table, rubbing elbows with the likes of Irving Berlin, Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, and Harpo Marx. Thanks to the family connection, Fleischmann’s was granted free advertising in the publication for decades.

Bad Blood

While Raoul’s magazine gamble paid off, another notable name on the Fleischmann family tree had entrepreneurial instincts that went the opposite direction. That would be one Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos infamy. She’s, in fact, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Bettie Fleischmann, daughter of Charles. (Sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree.) Bettie was a mover and shaker in her own right as she was vocally anti-Prohibition, campaigning cross country to repeal the 18th Amendment. 

The Great Fleischmann?

The inspiration for Jay Gatsby, one of the most iconic characters in American literature, was purportedly a composite of several of-the-era bon vivants. According to Klieger, F. Scott Fitzgerald might have had fabulously wealthy, fast car-enthusiast Julius Fleischmann (son of Charles) in mind for his novel’s namesake. Almost immediately after the start of Prohibition, Julius sold Fleischmann’s shuttered whiskey distilleries in Cincinnati to notorious bootlegger George Remus (also rumored to have inspired the Gatsby character) who somehow “lost” the warehouses’ remaining whiskey barrels, which were then mysteriously “found” on the black market, making him millions. While Julius’ hands were technically clean, Remus was eventually “arrested and charged with three thousand counts of illegal sale and transport of alcohol” writes Klieger.

We Built This City on Rye and Rolls

In 1913, Fleischmann’s was literally put on the map. Despite their incredible wealth and success, the times being what they were at the turn of the century, the family’s Jewish faith meant that many doors were closed to them. That included vacation resorts, so they steered their retreats towards the friendly environs of the Catskills. Their monetary investments in the region including a deer park, a trout pond, a riding stable, a heated pool filled with spring water, and uniforms for the youth band inspired a local town to rename itself Fleischmanns, NY.

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Batter Up

Baseball fanatics Julius and Max C. (sons of Charles) co-owned the Cincinnati Reds from 1902-1915. In 1903, Max C. served on the rules committee for the very first World Series. A historian for Major League Baseball also recently uncovered that the brothers also had a secret minority share in the Philadelphia Athletics concurrent to their involvement with the Reds organization (not exactly kosher).

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A Great Yeast For Radio

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If you’ve been watching the HBO “Perry Mason” reboot, you may have heard a shout out to “The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour” which  was required listening across America in the 1930s. The wildly popular radio program not only promoted the company, it also served as the nation’s first introduction to many enduring and beloved talents such as Louis Armstrong, Milton Berle, Burns and Allen, Jimmy Durante, and Red Skelton.

Fleischmann’s Island

Radio wasn’t the Fleischmanns’ only foray into entertainment. Portions of the “Gilligan’s Island” title sequence were shot on Coconut Island located off of Oahu. Christian Holmes II (grandson of Charles, son of Bettie) bought the island in the mid-1930s and proceeded to turn it into an extravagant oasis. Beyond the main house and numerous guest houses, he constructed tennis courts, a bowling alley, a shooting gallery, animal pens, docks, canals, and more. The family loaned its use to the United States Armed Forces as a retreat for soldiers during World War II. It was sold after Christian’s death in 1944 and is currently owned by the University of Hawaii as a marine biology research facility.

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For Your Health!

At the turn of the 20th century, Fleischmann’s dabbled in the snake oil business with its half-baked Yeast for Health! campaign. “It went a little bit too far,” Oleshak admits of the advertisements which promoted yeast as the ultimate cure-all for everything from gut health to unattractiveness. According to Klieger, the company even boasted, “Yeast is the latest and best addition to milady’s toilet table.” How appetizing. 

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David is a food and culture writer based in Los Angeles by way of New York City. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, CBS Local, Mashable, and Gawker.
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