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In UI navigation jargon, bread crumbs are used to describe a trail of links back to the starting point. This is obviously a reference to Hansel and Gretel, where they use a literal trail of bread crumbs to mark their path back to their house. But if you remember, the bread crumbs were eaten by birds and so pretty terrible as a navigation aid. The stones or pebbles, which he had used on the previous days actually worked.

How and when did bread crumbs come to have the meaning it seems to?

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Thread, emulating Theseus's experience in the Minotaur's labyrinth, might have been better. – Barrie England Nov 11 '11 at 17:46
I agree that the real reason is what Gnawme says below. But if you wanted to stretch the analogy, you can also consider that the bread crumbs in both cases are relatively volatile (UI breadcrumbs are subject to removal if the cookies are removed). And @BarrieEngland, "threads" is already taken, unfortunately. – JeffSahol Nov 11 '11 at 18:31
up vote 10 down vote accepted

Why breadcrumbs and not pebbles? Probably because bread crumbs are what people remember from the story.

The earliest use of breadcrumb to describe this particular UI navigation pattern seems to have been in this paper from February 2003. They cite an earlier paper from 2001, but that paper doesn't seem to use the term breadcrumbs.

As you might imagine, the suitability of the term breadcrumbs to this particular navigation aid is a matter of contention; check out the comments in this article.

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Perhaps we could move to a Brothers Grimm based interface metaphor? We connect to a web-gingerbread cottage and delete files by dragging them into an oven, we upload files by the serer letting down their hair? – mgb Nov 11 '11 at 20:28
@MartinBeckett: But I already have a fiber connection to the server via a Gingerbread device; and did you mean Oven-Source software? – Gnawme Nov 11 '11 at 20:46
@Gnawme strange, I find that my gingerbread contains quite little fiber. Maybe I should find another recipe? – Karl Knechtel Nov 11 '11 at 23:53
I like how the article starts with "Just as Hansel and Gretel created a breadcrumb trail to find their path back home..." Maybe that answers the question, people don't actually remember what happened to the bread crumbs. – Sam Nov 20 '11 at 4:36

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