Bakeries were an essential part of every city suburb and town until the 1950s.
As bread quickly goes stale, it must be bought soon after it is made. Bread had to be ready early in the day for morning customers. Dough was mixed in large kauri troughs and left overnight. Early in the morning it was kneaded by hand on a large table, weighed and placed in the metal tins it was baked in. Using a long wooden-handled implement called a peel, the tins were slid into a wood- or coke-fired brick oven to be baked.
Fire was a constant risk in the flour-laden atmosphere. The last wood-fired bakery closed in the 1960s, by which time most ovens were electric.
Until the 1960s most bread was sold unwrapped and unsliced, and was simply put in a paper bag at the shop counter.
Not sure to rise
As a boy in the 1920s Cliff Limpus worked in Newsomes Bakery, Whanganui:
‘One of the many bakeries of the time was owned by an alcoholic. He had two Model T Fords on the road, but the drivers arriving at work in the morning on many occasions had to bake the bread themselves after lifting the inebriated doughman out of the dough.’1
The bakery business
Bakers typically wore white full-length aprons. Often the small baker was also the shopkeeper and delivery roundsman, accountant and woodcutter. Bread bakers were exclusively men, while pastry cooks and cake bakers, a different group, were often women. The baker’s wife and daughters often helped in the shop or kept the books, and sons were sometimes groomed to take over the business.
To make money, bakers had to bake bread daily – they were tied to their ovens. The annual conference of the Federation of Bakers and Pastrycooks was many bakers’ only holiday. These were well-attended and renowned as rollicking affairs.
The baking industry was one of the most heavily regulated in the country from the 1930s to the 1980s. The government’s Wheat Committee, established in 1936, had a monopoly on the New Zealand flour supply and wheat was only imported to make up for a shortfall. One of the consequences was that bakers had to accept poor-quality flour and a very limited number of bread types were produced.
Prices were also subsidised by the government for certain types of bread. Flour subsidies ended in 1967, but price controls on bread only ended in 1980. Another complication was the universal 40-hour, five-day working week, which lasted from the 1945 to 1980. This meant that 40% of the week’s bread was made on Friday and customers had stale bread by Sunday. Later, some bakers began making a standard white ‘Sunday loaf’ on Sundays, so Monday’s sandwiches weren’t so stale.
Before good transport links were established, bakeries had to be close to their customers. In 1940 New Zealand had 730 bread bakeries – by 1968 there were only 119, with an average of 19 closing every year. In 1940 each bakery served an average population of 2,247; by 1967 the 132 bakeries each served an average population of 20,547.
In 1968 eight provincial bakeries established a cooperative company called Quality Bakers. By the 1990s it had captured around 39% of the New Zealand bread market.
By the 1980s the baking industry had changed from hundreds of tiny family-owned operations, with limited mechanisation, to a few, much larger, fully automated factories owned by a few companies.
There was also a much wider range of breads becoming available. Over the 1990s small niche specialty bakeries, selling a much wider range of breads, arose to meet a more sophisticated public’s bread tastes. Specialist bakeries also sold pies and some established themselves as prize-winning pie bakers in the 2000s.