You can be forgiven for thinking Pepperidge Farm was founded by someone like Titus Moody, the old Yankee character who appeared for years in Pepperidge Farm commercials driving a horse and wagon.
Titus – or rather, the two actors who played him — promoted that image of the company in television commercials for 40 years.
Pepperidge Farm was actually founded by Margaret Rudkin, a society housewife who lived in a Tudor mansion on 125 acres in tony Fairfield, Conn. She turned to selling bread after the stock market crashed in 1929 and her Wall Street broker husband suffered a polo accident.
Margaret Rudkin was a shrewd businesswoman who anticipated food trends, insisted on a quality product and treated her employees well. She also worked hard.
“There isn’t a worthwhile thing in the world that can’t be accomplished with good hard work,” she once said. “You’ve got to want something first and then you have to go after it with all your heart and soul.”
Slim and Stylish
Margaret Rudkin was born Margaret Fogarty in New York City on Sept. 14, 1897, the oldest of five children. She spent her early years in a turn-of-the-century brownstone in Tudor City, then moved to Long Island when she was 12. Margaret graduated valedictorian of her public high school class in Flushing, Queens, and then got a job as a bookkeeper in a small bank. Four years later she went to work for the Wall Street brokerage firm of McClure, Jones & Co.
She was a striking young woman, described later as “slim and sophisticated, with gorgeous red hair, green eyes and milk-white skin.” She attracted Henry Rudkin, a polo-playing partner in McClure, Jones, 12 years her senior. They married in 1923.
The Rudkins did well during the Wall Street boom of the Roaring ‘20s. They bought a 125-acre farm in Fairfield. There they built a Tudor-style mansion with a five-car garage and a 12-horse stable. They named their home Pepperidge Farm after the sorghum trees on the property, which the locals called ‘pepperidge.’ Henry and Margaret Rukin devoted themselves to their three sons, to hunts and to horse shows.
That ended with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Henry suffered a serious polo accident and couldn’t work for six months. Margaret sold all their horses and all their cars but one, let the servants go and looked for a way to make money, starting with apples and turkeys.
According to one account, she began baking stone-ground whole wheat bread because her son Mark had severe food allergies. According to her own account, she started baking because of her ‘interest in proper food for children.‘
At first, she failed. “My first loaf should have been sent to the Smithsonian Institution as a sample of Stone Age bread, for it was hard as a rock and about one inch high,” she said.
She kept at it. In August 1937 she sold her first batch of Pepperidge Farm bread to her grocer in Fairfield, Mercurio’s Market.
Her fledgling business got a boost from her family doctor, who recommended her bread to other patients, and from the New York Journal and American, which featured a story about her under the headline, “Society Woman Turns Baker To Supply Elite With Healthful Bread.” Mass-produced bread cost 10 cents a loaf, while Pepperidge Farm bread cost 25 cents because it was made with whole milk and butter.
Margaret Rudkin moved her bakery from the kitchen into the garage and began making white bread with unbleached flour. A specialty food store in New York, Charles & Co., ordered 24 loaves a day. Henry Rudkin delivered them on his way to Wall Street.
Pepperidge Farm got a big shot of publicity with a Reader’s Digest article in December 1939, called ‘Bread DeLuxe.’ Orders for Pepperidge Farm bread started pouring in from all over the country. Margaret Rudkin borrowed $15,000, and in 1940 moved her bakery to a former auto showroom and hospital in Norwalk, Conn.
World War II interrupted her plans to expand the company, but in 1947, she moved production to a $625,000 plant in Norwalk. Plants in Pennsylvania and Illinois soon followed. Pepperidge Farm employees, paid better than other bakery workers, began churning out dinner rolls, stuffing and oatmeal breads.
Milanos Come to America
Margaret Rudkin predicted an appetite for frozen pastries and bought the Black Horse Frozen Pastry Company of Keene, N.H. In 1955, the Rudkins went to Belgium and discovered the premium cookies made by the Delacre Company in Brussels. They negotiated a deal with the company to make the European-style cookies in America, and Milanos and Sausalitos were born.
On another trip to Europe they found a fish-shaped cracker they correctly predicted would be a winner as Pepperidge Farm Goldfish snacks.
By then, Pepperidge Farm had grown into a national company. Henry Rudkin had quit his Wall Street job to manage marketing and finances. Margaret Rudkin served as president, taking the first bite of every new product and appearing in television commercials. (Watch a video here.) In 1956, 63-year-old Parker Fennelly of Northeast Harbor, Maine, began appearing in Pepperidge Farm commercials as Titus Moody delivering bread in a horse-drawn wagon. It was one of the most successful — and longest running — advertising campaigns ever.
Broke No Longer
Margaret Rudkin underwent surgery for breast cancer in 1956. Four years later, she and Henry sold Pepperidge Farm to the Campbell Soup Co. for $28 million in stock. Margaret Rudkin became the first female director of Campbell Soup and continued to run Pepperidge Farm. Two years later, her son William took over the presidency.
In 1963, Margaret Rudkin wrote the Pepperidge Farm Cookbook, and it became the first cookbook to make the New York Times Bestseller List. It includes a section on the antique cookbooks she collected, with vintage recipes and modern updates. She based the book in part on a classic 15th century cookbook, De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine. On the company’s 20th anniversary in 1957, the 1,000 Pepperidge Farm employees had each contributed a dollar to pay for the book as a gift to her.
Margaret Rudkin donated her extensive collection of antique cookbooks to the Pequot Library in Southport, Conn., and made generous gifts to the Yale-New Haven Hospital. Margaret Rudkin died of breast cancer at the hospital in 1967.
Here is an adaptation of Margaret Rudkin’s recipe for Bread Stuffing.
1 lb. Pepperidge Farm bread
1 white onion, chopped fine
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon sage
1/2 teaspoon thyme
¼ lb butter, melted
Several days before roasting a turkey or chicken, set aside the bread to dry out. Leave it unwrapped so it will dry thoroughly. On the day the fowl is to be cooked, cut the bread into thick slices and remove the crust from each slice. Dip each slice into cold water and wring out carefully. After squeezing each slice dry, crumble it into a large bowl by rubbing between your hands. Add salt, pepper, sage, thyme and chopped onion to the bowl and stir gently. Taste and sniff, and add more thyme or sage as you prefer. Pour on the melted butter and toss like a salad.
This story was updated in 2023.
Images: Goldfish crackers By Evan-Amos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11927032. Pepperidge Farm logo By Pepperidge Farm website, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58904984. Milanos By Geoff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4613544. Margaret Rudkin By http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2007/fortune/0709/gallery.MPW_100_years.fortune/7.html, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33264499.