Fourth in a series of posts about US brands that are thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Around the end of March, a couple of weeks into California’s shelter-in-place directive, I used up the last of my flour on a batch of Marion Cunningham’s raw apple muffins—a recipe I’d first tasted, years earlier, at Cunningham’s house in Walnut Creek, where I’d gone to interview her. (I’ve forgotten what story I was writing, but I’ll never forget the warm muffins and strong coffee she served me. As I was leaving, she gave me her well-worn and annotated copy of The Breakfast Book, which I still use.)
When I ventured out to buy more flour, all of the shelves were bare. I’d had the bad luck to run out of provisions during a pandemic baking boom; flour mills had been caught short. I was late to this realization: In early March, King Arthur Flour—the oldest flour company in America and the country’s fourteenth-oldest manufacturer—had noticed a 600 percent jump in grocery-store sales of their products virtually overnight. “It was as if half of America had decided all at once that they needed to bake. A lot,” writes David H. Freedman in an engrossing story for Medium about the King Arthur company.
Finally found some!
The problem wasn’t supply—there was plenty of wheat available—but logistics. Until the pandemic, home baking had been in decline for years; flour mills like King Arthur stayed in business by supplying restaurants and commercial bakeries, which bought in huge quantities and which were now shut down.
Freedman’s story reveals how King Arthur quickly adapted to meet the new market demands. It’s also full of other interesting tidbits. For one, the company has been employee owned since 1996. For another, employees call the Vermont headquarters “Carbohydrate Camelot.”
But the story doesn’t delve into the history and significance of the company name. So I did my own investigation.
The company now known as King Arthur Flour was founded in Boston in 1790 by Henry Wood, who imported and distributed English flour. A few years later he took a partner, and the company became Henry Wood & Company. In 1895, after a reorganization, the company was renamed after its owners: Sands, Taylor & Wood Company. (That Wood, George E., was unrelated to founder Henry.)
In 1896, after a century of selling imported and regional flours, Sands, Taylor & Wood decided to introduce its own premium flour. What to name it? A 1981 story in the Christian Science Monitor punnily headlined “Knighthood in Flour” tells the story:
George E. Wood, one of the principals and an advertising genius of his day, attended a musical production of “The Knights of the Round Table'” at Boston's old Mechanics Hall. He came away thinking that the sterling qualities of purity , honesty, strength, and fidelity to high ideals that made Camelot were the very qualities that fit the kind of flour his company wanted to market - the best quality, highest in protein, finest milled in the country, and offered, as Frank Sands expresses it, “by people who are dead honest.”
Or, as the company blog puts it: Wood “witnessed the same values in Arthurian legend he saw in his new exceptional flour: purity, loyalty, honesty, superior strength, and a dedication to a higher purpose.”
An elaborate logo for King Arthur Flour from before 1984, when Sands, Taylor & Wood moved from Boston to Vermont.
Once you had yourself a King Arthur, brand extension was irresistible. In short order, Sands, Taylor & Wood introduced Queen Guinevere Cake Flour, Merlin Magic Doughnut Mix, Round Table Pastry Flour, and three bread flours: Sir Lancelot, Squire, and Excalibur. In 1996—the same year the company converted to employee ownership—the product name became the company name.
Sir Galahad flour—“the flour of choice for artisan breads and yeasted pastries”—is still sold in pallets and individual 50-pound bags. Also still in production: high-gluten Sir Lancelot flour and soft wheat Round Table flour. In the legend, Galahad was the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic who found the Holy Grail; his name now signifies “a pure and noble man.”
Excalibur flour is no longer produced.
King Arthur Flour is just one manifestation of an enduring fascination with the Arthurian legend, which medieval scholar Elizabeth S. Sklar called “a receptive vessel waiting to be filled by the aspirations, anxieties, and dreams of any individual or group that chooses to appropriate it.” Sklar’s essay, from 2002, includes a long list of “onomastic Arthuriana”—“the invocation of major Arthurian icons in the naming of establishments, services, companies, and such palpably non-medieval products as communication services, motorcycles, and machine tools.” Following John F. Kennedy’s death, his widow Jacqueline famously dubbed his short presidency “Camelot,” after the hit Broadway (and later Hollywood) musical. There are streets named King Arthur Court in Palo Alto, Tracy, and Santa Rosa, California. There is, or was, a Camp Camelot for overweight children. The Excalibur Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas opened in 1990 as a fully themed family resort (and the largest hotel in the world); today, most of the medieval trappings have been replaced with contemporary ones. The Arthurian-themed Prince Valiant comic debuted in 1937 and still tells its epic story in some Sunday newspapers.
Excalibur’s exterior still evokes an Arthurian fantasy.
Besides King Arthur Flour, Round Table Pizza is one of the more enduring American brands with a link to Arthuriana. But the company, founded in 1959 in Menlo Park, California, took its name not from legend but from the only furniture the owner had on hand. The theming came later: an Olde English typeface, a mascot called Pizza Knight (“defender of family knight”), mock-medieval banners that spelled “F-U-N,” and the current tagline, “Pizza Royalty.”
Oddly, Amazon gives the publication date of King Arthur in Popular Culture as January 1, 1734. (It was published in 2002.) And it's ridiculously expensive there. Instead, try Barnes & Noble, a used bookseller, or your local library when it reopens.
Previously in Corona Brands: