AGAINST THE GRAIN
WELL WORTH THE WAIT
“If you haven’t tried Shelly’s 4X bread, are you really enjoying that sandwich?” In all honesty, the ship has long since sailed for that bread-tasting opportunity. But if you were around Western Canada in the first half of the 20th century, you might be quite familiar with the compelling billboards, illustrated with cartoon characters. They appeared across the West, promoting the quality of the Vancouver-based bread maker’s high-quality 4X bakery products. On some signs, it was recommended to eat two slices at every meal.
Shelly’s was described as bread dough that had been prepared, allowed to rise, then knocked down and allowed to rise again—a process that was repeated four times before being baked. It was intended to improve the quality and texture of the bread, and to improve the overall eating experience. But with the arrival of new technology and a growing preference for high-speed production, the 4X process—which can add four to six hours to the bread-making process—hasn’t been used in commercial bakeries for many years.
However, it was a process that worked in the early half of the 1900s for William Curtis Shelly and his brother James—Ontario bakers who moved west in 1910 to expand their business. They started Shelly’s 4X Bakery in Vancouver, but the bakery was just the tip of the business iceberg that made William Curtis Shelly a millionaire, a prominent businessman and an influential B.C. politician during the Great Depression.
In the 1920s, the Shelly brothers became famous for their 4X bread that was delivered door-to-door in neighbourhoods across B.C.’s Lower Mainland “in gleaming vans drawn by prize-winning horses.” They reportedly had “hundreds of employees,” with branches in New Westminster and North Vancouver, along with their head office on the northwest corner of 10th Avenue and Ash Street in Vancouver. There are many photos in Vancouver historical archives showing bakers at work preparing pans of bread dough for the large commercial ovens. Building on the success of their original bakery, the Shellys bought other local bakeries and eventually formed a company called Canadian Bakeries Ltd., which sold the famous 4X bread, cakes and other bakery products across Western Canada well into the mid- to late 1940s.