The Chelsea ‘Muffin House’ where a beloved brand was baked

In the 1830s, Clement Clarke Moore began selling off parcels of land from his country estate, a retreat north of Greenwich Village that his grandfather had named Chelsea in the 18th century.

Moore—a wealthy professor best known as the author behind ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas—planned to develop his estate into a fine residential neighborhood for elite members of the growing city, according to the Chelsea Historic District report.

Unfortunately, the new Chelsea neighborhood didn’t last as an enclave of huge brownstones and mansions. Instead, it became a “comfortable and middle class” district through much of the 19th century, per the CHD report.

By the end of the 19th century, the exclusively residential neighborhood Moore had planned gave way to commercial enterprises—including one iconic bakery brand that introduced New York to the English muffin and is still sold across the US today.

That brand was Thomas’ English Muffins, which were baked in the basement of the circa-1850 brick house on 20th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues (photos above).

The Thomas’ English muffin story begins in 1874, when baker Samuel Bath Thomas (above) left England and settled in New York City, determined to bring his family’s English muffin recipe (these muffins were originally called “toaster crumpets,” reports The Nibble) to the American masses.

He opened his first bakery in 1880 at 163 Ninth Avenue, according to a 2006 New York Times article. Business was good. So in the early 20th century, Thomas opened another bakery around the corner in the basement and ground floor of 337 West 20th Street, a three-story dwelling with a hidden back house on the property.

“Sam’s muffins were sold on the streets of New York by those basket-carrying, bell-ringing muffin men of song and story, by Sam in the retail store—upstairs from the bakery and downstairs from his apartment—and by pushcarts to restaurants in the neighborhood,” states a New York Daily News article from 1980, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the English muffin’s introduction to the United States.

“Finally, as the fame of Thomas’ muffins spread to the suburbs, which were then places like Queens and Brooklyn, Sam bought a horse and wagon to haul around all the muffins he was making,” the Daily News wrote. (See the above photo, with the 20th Street store address on the side of the wagon.)

Thomas died in 1918 just as a new English muffin plant was going up in Long Island City. The business carried on with the help of relatives before being sold to a manufacturer, which still produces them today.

But what of the former bakery at 337 West 20th Street? It’s unclear when it was abandoned; the ground floor was still used as a storefront in the tax photo from 1940. But amazingly, the enormous oven in which Thomas’ muffins achieved their nook and cranny goodness was found in 2006 behind a basement wall.

Tenants of the apartment on the other side of the wall made the discovery of the “room-size brick oven,” as the Times described it. The nonworking oven—likely originally built for the foundry that used to be in the basement before being converted to bakery use—was built into the basement foundation, and most of it stretches underneath the courtyard between the main building and the back house (below).

Number 337 is now a co-op apartment residence. On the facade of the building is a charming sign giving some historical background on what’s now affectionately known as the “muffin house.”

[Third and fourth photos: Thomasbreads.com; fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; seventh photo: Streeteasy.com]

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18 Responses to “The Chelsea ‘Muffin House’ where a beloved brand was baked”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Thomas’ are still the best English muffins. Thank you for the origin story!

  2. fmlondon Says:

    So what happened to the oven?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      The oven is still in the basement, built into the basement wall, apparently, and unable to be moved. There’s more info about it in the New York Times story I’ve linked to.

  3. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    Wow, I always thought Thomas’ English Muffins came from England, only goes to show what did I know, Duhh…

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Well, the family recipe came from England, so it’s authentically English in origin. Just NYC baked!

  4. chas1133 Says:

    Love to see the oven…Chelsea is still one of my all time favorite neighborhoods…you always remind me of why I love this site…

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks chas! Chelsea’s beauty and history fascinates me as well. It’s like a city unto itself with its own origin story.

  5. Geoff Siegel Says:

    Sorry but there is a small error in the article. You state the muffin house is at 337 *EAST* 20th St but it’s actually WEST

    On Sun, May 9, 2021 at 11:46 PM Ephemeral New York wrote:

    > ephemeralnewyork posted: ” In the 1830s, Clement Clarke Moore began > selling off parcels of land from his country estate, a retreat north of > Greenwich Village that his grandfather had named Chelsea in the 18th > century. Moore—a wealthy professor best known as the author behi” >

  6. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Does the sign on the wagon read “Thomas’ Gluten Bread?”

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, I thought that was unusual. But I guess as opposed to rye bread, or corn bread?

      • Shayne Davidson Says:

        Perhaps you’re right but I’ve always thought of gluten as a more recent word. My great grandfather immigrated from London to America in 1872. I wish he’d been as successful as Mr. Thomas!

  7. mitzanna Says:

    “Thomas opened another bakery around the corner in the basement and ground floor of 337 East 20th Street…” that should be 337 WEST 20th Street.

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