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The Story of the New York Bagel Union

bagel union

Bagels, like everything else in this country, have a long and varied history! One part of that past is one not known to many a New Yorker: in the early 1900s bagels were made under the strict control of the Local 338 Union in Manhattan.

The bagel union was a federation of around 300 bagel makers in the New York and New Jersey area, with 36 bakeries in the group and membership limited to bagel professionals and their sons.

The “New York bagel” that became the gold standard dates back to this time, when bagels were still only about 3 ounces by weight, baked in the early mornings, and looped in batches of five dozen at a time, to be hung on the doorknobs of businesses that ordered them.

The Local 338 only had a reign of about 50 years; the advent of the bagel machine in the 1960s undid the union, as any bakery became able to form bagels at much faster rates.

According to Mike Edelstein, who has been a bagel maker for more than 40 years, “A machine could roll 300 dozen bagels an hour with one man operating it, while two experienced hand rollers could only produce 125 dozen in the same amount of time.”

As the bagel market grew, so did the bagel. The union’s strict adherence to the 3 ounce maximum went out the window, and bagels doubled in size, with the average bagel of today weighing in at 6-7 ounces.

Some bakers, like New Yorker Bagels, offer “mini bagels” now that are more the size of the original – with the same wonderful taste, texture and variety available as the larger version.

As to additions to bagel dough, chain bagel shops have popularized the seemingly inexhaustible array of bagel flavors. When many of the bagelries of today began baking bagels, there was only plain, salt, poppy and sesame.

Most bagel bakers would make 10 plain bagels for every other bagel – but with demand for variety, that has changed. You can now enjoy whole wheat, pumpernickel, cinnamon raisin, cranberry, energy and many more bagel flavors.

Bagels may no longer be a source of union jobs, but New York’s bagel with a schmear is still one of the best loved foods, and more bagels are being sold every year on the streets of New York and beyond!