Though a Po’ Boy is sometimes viewed as a variation on a sub, both sandwiches originated in the late 19th century and came about independently of each other. The meat-and-cheese filled sub came from the Italian immigrant neighborhoods of the northeast. The Po’ Boy, originally called an oyster loaf, got its start in port cities like New Orleans and San Francisco. The sandwich earned its name – and nationwide fame – at the very end of the Roaring ‘20s, just months before the stock market crash of 1929.
In 1922, brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin quit their jobs as New Orleans streetcar conductors and opened a coffee shop in the city’s historic French Market. Though the shop was small, the location in the heart of the French Quarter was prime, and the brothers did a brisk business.
In the summer of 1929, negotiations between the transit company and the streetcar workers broke down, resulting in a strike and transit shut down. When strike-breaking thugs were brought in to take the more than 1,000 jobs left vacant, the strike turned violent. Despite the loss of their transit system, the public firmly favored the union, and turned out to support the workers.
As former streetcar conductors, the brothers also lent their support, announcing that they would feed any hungry striker who could not afford to pay. The Martins more than kept their promise, not only feeding the union men through the long and bitter strike, but working with a local baker to develop an even longer loaf, one measuring 40 inches, in order to make sandwiches that were especially filling. According to Bennie Martin, whenever they saw another hungry striker headed their way, either he or his brother would say, “Here comes another poor boy,” and start making a sandwich. The brothers’ generosity earned thousands of new fans, and the sandwich, with its new name, became a symbol of the city’s heart and soul.