Really, nobody has seen a muffin man — a real one — since well before World War II. Once, and we’re going back some 150 years now to Victorian England, so-called “muffin men” were common in British cities. They sold a sort of dense wheat cake that went by the name of a “tea muffin.” Those cakes were a far cry from what we in America now know as “English muffins”, and today they are entirely extinct as a food.
The hatted, bell-ringing merchants that once roamed the streets of London with flannel-draped baskets of hot muffins now only exist in children’s rhymes. As early as 1899 traditional tea muffins were on their way out in Britain and the mantle of muffin cookery was being passed to the States. Or so said Victorian-era cookbook writer Theodore Francis Garrett:
It has been claimed for the British baker that he alone can make a muffin; but it is [a thing] almost to be feared…the prestige has passed over to America, where muffins are made of various flours, and so light and digestible that it is a question if they are not rather an American dish.
It’s not clear from this whether Garrett was referring to American quick bread-style muffins or the updated, lighter “English muffins” that were also being made in America at the time. Indeed Samuel Bath Thomas, a British ex-pat who emigrated to America with his mother’s muffin recipe in 1875, had been making muffins for decades by then.
Who was Samuel Thomas? Suffice to say he’s the man who probably saved the savory English-style muffin from vanishing into the mists of time forever. The company he founded not only established the English muffin as a staple of the American breakfast, it eventually re-introduced the English muffin back to Britain. Ironically the things have yet to catch on there. I dunno, maybe the English don’t eat eggs Benedict. Whatever the case, America owns the muffin now.