Food historians generally agree that cooked bread and cheese combinations [in many different forms, textures and tastes] were ancient foods known across most continents and cultures. The earliest recipes for food like these are found in Ancient Roman cookbooks. Modern grilled cheese sandwiches descended from these ancient recipes.
Who invented the grilled cheese Americans know today? We will never know, but we can (given the ingredients) place it in time. Culinary evidence suggests our modern grilled cheese (consisting of processed cheese and sliced white bread) began in the 1920s. That's when affordable sliced bread and inexpensive American cheese hit the market. Government issue cookbooks tell us World War II Navy cooks broiled hundreds of "American cheese filling sandwiches" in ship's kitchens. This makes sense. The sandwich was economical, easy to make, met government nutrition standards.
Why is Grilled Cheese paired with Tomato Soup?
Post-WWII institutional foodservice (including school cafeterias) paired grilled cheese with tomato soup to provide the required Vitamin C component. It was also economical and easy:
"Soups. The use of canned soups for all types of school foodservice can add variety as well as good nutrition to the menu. They contribute particularly to the small school with minimum equipment and to the school where the teacher must prepare the hot lunch in addition to classroom teaching...Serve a hearty soup and a sandwich to meet the total 2-ounce protein requirement of the Type A lunch."
---School Lunch Recipes Using Canned Foods, Home Economics Divison [National Canners Association: Washington D.C.] 1949 (p. 4)
[NOTE: This booklet mentions tomato soup but not grilled cheese.]
Grilled vs toasted?
Some people wonder about the difference between toasted cheese and grilled cheese. Are they the same thing? On the surface, recipes for both produce somewhat similar results (melted cheese nestled between two slices of crisp, warm, buttered bread). Actually? Food historians tell us this a linguistic puzzle. Notes here:
"Toast...is made by placing a slice of bread in front of dry heat-a fire, a grill, or an electric toaster...Certainly, toast has a long history in Britain. Tost was much used in the Middle Ages, being made in an ordinary way at an open fire...Often toast was spread with toppings...Meat toppings for toast became fashionable during the 16th century...Towards the end of the 16th century, all kinds of things began to appear on toast...[including] melted cheese."
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press: Oxford] 1999 (p. 796-7)
"Grill...to cook by direct exposure to radiant heat, as in when a piece of meat is placed on a grill...The North American word for the verb grill is broil."
---ibid (p. 354)
A survey of American cookbooks reveals that recipes titled for "toasted cheese" sandwiches predate those titled "grilled cheese." Other names for this dish exist too. A careful examination of ingredients and method confirm the connection. The term "grilled cheese" surfaces in American print during the 1930s. This coincides with the introduction of portable electric cooking tools, courtesy of Thomas Alva Edison. The Edicraft brand Sandwich Grill (also Deep Grill Plate, Waffle Baker) were welcomed by modern American housewives. Table cookery was not new: chafing dishes were popular from the 1890s forward. Late 19th/early 20th-century American cookbooks regularly offer recipes for cheese toast (melted cheese served on toast points, no top). Cheese is typically grated or creamed into a "butter." Cayenne and mustard, traditional Rarebit ingredients, are no strangers to early grilled cheese.
"Grilled cheese" sandwich recipes through time
Cut stale bread in one-third inch slices, remove crusts, and cut slices in pieces three by one and one-half inches. Remove centres, leaving bread in box-shaped pieces. Fit in each box a slice of mild cheese, sprinkle with salt and paprika, and cover with a thin piece of bread which was removed with the centre. Saute in a hot blazer, using enough butter to prevent burning."
---Chafing Dish Possibilities, Fannie Merritt Farmer [Little, Brown, and Company: Boston] 1902 (p. 134)
Cut white bread in 1/4 in. slices spread lightly with mustard butter and sprinkle thickly with grated cheese. Cover with buttered slices, press together and arrange in a wire broiler. Toast a delicate brown on one side, turn and lightly toast on the other side. Serve hot with tea or coffee."
---"July Twenty-Sixth," Calendar of Sandwiches & Beverages, Elizabeth O. Hiller [P.F. Volland Company: Joliet IL] 1915?
Tomato or mushroom catchup
Cut eight thin slices of white bread, remove the crusts and spread with butter. Place thick slices of cheese between the bread and fry in plenty of hot butter in the chafing dish. Serve hot with tomato or mushroom catchup."
---Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing Dish Recipes, Marion H. Neil (p. 23)
"Toasted Cheese Sandwich
Allow four tablespoons grated cheese for each sandwich. Mix with a little salad dressing or white sauce to bind. Add a little chopped pimento and spread between slices of buttered bread. Toast and serve at once."
---Seven Hundred Sandwiches, Florence A. Cowles [Little, Brown, and Company: Boston] 1929 (p. 181)
Luncheon: Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, Salad of Mixed Greens, Baked Bananas, Orange Cake, Tea."
---"Today's Menu," Marian Manners, Los Angeles Times, January 20, 1932 (p. A7)[No recipe offered]
Sunday night is grilling time. Avoiding a pun is difficult, but modern cooking being what it is and modern tastes being what they are, the statement stands and maybe accepted quite literally. Grilled cheese sandwiches are no new thing. We get them in drug stores for lunch and at tea rooms for supper. But when the housewife begins to grill there is no limit to the combinations she may use and the delicious Sunday night suppers she may serve. Open-face sandwiches of cheese and tomato grilled, offer a combination of flavours sure to please the palate."
---"Capital Kitchen: Sunday Night Supper the Time to Bring out the Grill," Susan Mills Washington Post, May 2, 1934 (p. 14)
[NOTE: Edicraft Sandwich Grill, 1934. This photo was published in "Table Cookery," Edicraft. This pocket-sized cooking booklet does not include a recipe for grilled cheese.]
("Place cheese between two thin slices of bread. Butter outside of sandwiches lightly, brown in the oven.") & Hot Cheese Sandwich ("Spread two slices of bread lightly with creamed butter. On unbuttered side place a slice of American cheese. Place the second slice of bread over cheese with buttered side out. Watkins Paprika. Place sandwich in the broiler, brown on both sides. Do not melt cheese too much."
---Watkins Cook Book [J.R. Watkins Company: Winona MN] 1936 (p. 126)
"Cheese Spread for Toasted Sandwiches. "Cheese Dreams."
The following delicious sandwich spread will keep for a week or more. Scald in a double boiler:
1/2 cup milk
1 beaten egg
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound American cheese, diced
Cook these ingredients over hot water for 15 minutes. Stir them constantly. Cool the mixture and keep it in a closed jar in the refrigerator. When ready to use it spread it between:
Rounds of bread
Place on each side of the canapes or sandwiches a generous dab of:
Toast them in a moderate oven 350 degrees F. until they are crisp, or toast them on a broiler."
---Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer [Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis IN] 1936 (p. 7)
[NOTE: This recipe does not appear in the 1931 1st edition of Joy.]
Spread sandwiches with filling but no butter. Brush outside with melted butter and toast in a broiling oven or saute in butter in heavy frying pan or table grill."
---The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, Fannie M. Farmer (p. 719)
"Toasted Cheese Sandwiches (sauteed in a skillet)
1/2 pound sharp Parmesan or cheddar cheese shredded
2 tablespoons chives, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
2 egg yolks
2 egg whites
4 tablespoons butter
Blend shredded cheese with chives, salt, mustard and the egg yolks. Fold in whites of eggs, stiffly beaten. Spread slices of bread well with the mixture and top each with another slice. Butter both sides of sandwiches liberally and saute in butter in skillet till bread is nicely browned and cheese mixture fully cooked."
---Fireside Cook Book, James A. Beard (p. 152)
"Waffle or toasted sandwiches
These and the following sandwiches are good for the maidless hostess who has no toaster.
Cut into thin slices:
White or dark bread
Spread it lightly with:
Cut off the crusts and spread between the slices:
Cheese Spread or other sandwich fillings...
Cut the sandwiches to fit the sections of a waffle iron. Wrap them in a moist cloth until ready to toast. Heat waffle iron, arrange the sandwiches upon the iron, lower the top and toast them until they are crisp."
---The Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer [Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis IN] 1953 (p. 137)