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These bread revolts changed history. We should know why.

The history of bread wars have a lot to tell us about conflicts today.

These bread revolts changed history. We should know why.
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Gates Foundation: The Story of Food

You might have heard the saying "We're only three square meals away from anarchy."

It turns out that for many people throughout the centuries, that meal was ... bread.

Bread is actually one of the oldest, cheapest prepared foods in the world, with archeological evidence dating it back at least 30,000 years.


Historical accounts of breadmaking often say the Roman Pliny the Elder first detailed how the skim from beer was used to aerate bread. In ancient Egypt, the workers who built the pyramids are believed to have been given a daily allowance of bread loaves.

Grain farmers in ancient Egypt. Image via iStock.

Even today, a word used in Egypt for bread is "aish," which means "life." It's also considered haram, or taboo, to cut bread with a knife in many Middle Eastern countries.  

If you're like many Americans, you might wonder what your love/hate relationship with all of that gluten-y, carbelicious goodness has to do with centuries of civil conflict or even the recent Syrian crisis.

It turns out that there's an actual historical correlation between an increase in grain prices and civil unrest.

A crowd throws bread in Stockport, Lancashire, in 1842. Image via Getty Images.

That's because bread, a magical alchemy of grain, yeast, and water, has managed to sustain poor people for centuries. Historically, when people could no longer afford bread, they knew they would starve. So they revolted.

Entire nations have even toppled because of a lack of access to bread. We might not realize it, but bread uprisings throughout history have a lot to tell us about the global crises of today.

Here are five of the bread revolts that have changed the course of history:  

1. Flour Wars, France, 1775

Original lithograph of the French Revolution, 1789. Image via Getty Images.

Surprisingly, Marie-Antoinette may never have told French peasants to eat cake. According to historians, it might have actually been France's famous Flour Wars that played a major role in the French Revolution. Catalyzed by a poor grain yield and rising grain prices, scholars found more than 652 French food-based riots from 1760 to 1789 that ultimately led to the French Revolution in 1789.

2. Flour Riots, New York, 1837

Representation of depressed economic situation in America before the panic of 1837. Image via Getty Images.

When a depression caused flour to jump from $7 per barrel to $20 in 1837, two New York companies, Eli Hart & Co. and S.H. Herrick & Co., were accused of hoarding it. The public took action, and soon after, rioters destroyed 500 bushels of flour and 1,000 barrels of wheat in Hart's shop. The mob grew so violent that they had to be restrained by the Seventh Regiment.

3. Richmond Bread Riots, 1863

Southern women feel the effects of the rebellion and create bread riots. Image via Library of Congress.  

In 1863, a mob of Confederate housewives took to the streets with axes in Richmond, Virginia, chanting "bread or blood" while ransacking and looting shops for flour. Prompted by flour prices that had risen 10 times in two years as well as dealing with a tone-deaf leader, the women decided to take things into their own hands. They didn't take just the flour — they took a wagon of beef and 500 pounds of bacon, too.

4. Egyptian Bread Riots, Egypt, 1977

A woman protests with bread in Cairo in 2007. Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images.

In 1977, Egypt decided to stop subsidizing basic food staples such as wheat and bread. As a result, many poor Egyptians took to the streets. Hundreds were killed, and even more were injured. The riots went on for two days until the government reinstated the wheat subsidies that so many poor Egyptians depended upon.

But that wasn't Egypt's last bread revolt...

5. The Arab Spring, 2008-2011

A protester holds bread in Tunisia in 2010. Photo by Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images.

In 2008, sudden global increases in grain prices compounded with inflation that led to riots in Egypt, reminding a lot of people of the tumultuous events of 31 years prior. Government-subsidized flour, which had once sold for $3.14 per 100 kilograms, suddenly shot to $377 on the black market. Because 40% of Egyptians lived in poverty, many of them couldn't afford to live without the bread that the government helped them afford. Riots swept the nation, and several people were killed in front of government bakeries.

In 2010, as global grain prices continued to rise, Tunisians also began to revolt, bread in hand. The toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 became the climactic beginning of a major destabilizing shift of an entire region, known as the Arab Spring.  

Many people said the Arab Spring was a revolution of the hungry.

Egyptian protestors hold bread in 2013. Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images.  

The current crisis in Syria is also a prime example of what can happen when people don't have enough to eat.

Though it might be hard to fully understand Syria's current problems, some researchers think that it has to do in part with access to bread. At one point, Syria was the only country in the entire region that was completely self-sufficient in food production, specifically in wheat crops such as barley.

Experts have argued that it was a massive crop failure due to drought and possible climate change from 2006 to 2009 that drove Syrian farmers to finally challenge their ruler. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired back, he also explicitly targeted bread bakeries that fell under rebel control.

For much of the world's poor, bread is a life-sustaining necessity. But numerous factors, such as worldwide droughts, are causing grain to become harder and harder to grow.

Syria and Egypt are part of what was once known as the Fertile Crescent, the area of the world where people first started to grow grain and form civilizations. But now, the grain that once made their lands famous is becoming harder and harder to access. When this delicate balance of access to basic foods is upset, history shows us that whole communities — and entire nations — can topple.

If history is an indication, where bread and grain become scarce, civil unrest follows. Now that's something to chew on.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by Tod Perry

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