We’ve all heard that some new invention is “the best thing since sliced bread.” However, unless you’re more than 90 years old, you probably have no idea about what life was like before bread was available in a pre-sliced loaf.
Bread is among the oldest of prepared foods. Archaeologists believe that people were making a crude form of this dietary staple at least 30,000 years ago. But it wasn’t until July 7, 1928, that people could buy a loaf of pre-sliced bread from their local bakery, thanks to the inventive mind and persistence of Otto Rohwedder.
Rohwedder was the son of immigrant Germans. He studied optometry, graduating in 1900 from the institution that is now known as the Northern Illinois College of Ophthalmology and Otology in Chicago. Although it seems unlikely, given our modern understanding of these medical specializations, he used the skills he learned to become a jeweler.
Within a few years, he married and became the owner of three jewelry stores in St. Joseph, Missouri. Little is known about this aspect of his life except that he used his work with watches and jewelry to invent a variety of machines. In 1912, he produced his first bread-slicing machine, but it had many imperfections. During the next five years, he labored on making improvements.
In 1917, he thought that he had solved most of the problems that had plagued earlier models, but a fire broke out at the factory and destroyed his prototype and blueprints. By that time, traditional bakers knew about Rohwedder’s machine, but they were convinced that sliced bread would quickly go stale.
Rohwedder, however, had faith that his invention would be successful. So, he sold his three stores to fund the research and development of a new model. He believed that the problem of bread going stale quickly would be solved by inserting hat pins into the end of the loaf, to hold the bread together. The idea worked, but the pins kept falling out, causing the loaf to collapse in the middle and detracting from its overall appearance.
In 1928, the inventor came up with an idea to solve that problem, he added a feature to the Rohwedder Bread Slicer that wrapped the loaf in waxed paper after slicing. Then, he replaced the hat pins with a u-shaped pin. But even with the sliced bread wrapped, local bakeries refused to use the new machine. So Rohwedder traveled to Chillicothe, Missouri, where baker Frank Bench agreed to try out the product.
The “power-driven, multi-bladed bread slicer” was set up at Frank Bench’s Chillicothe Baking Company on July 6, 1928, the same day that the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune ran a front-page story, stating that people might find sliced bread “startling,” but that “the typical housewife could expect a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows. So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.”
The article continued with a statement to allay fears about the use of pre-sliced bread.
“After all, the idea of sliced bread is not unlike the idea of ground coffee, sliced bacon and many other modern and generally accepted products which combine superior results with a saving of time and effort.”
A full-page advertisement on the back of the newspaper even gave these instructions: “1) Open wrapper at one end, 2) pull out pin, 3) remove as many slices as desired.”
The following day, the first loaf of pre-sliced bread went on store shelves as “Sliced Kleen Maid Bread.” It proved the newspaper hype to be prophetic, as the bread was an instant success and its sales skyrocketed. Only two years later, Wonder Bread was building its own machines from Rohwedder’s design. Its product was distributed nation-wide, and Americans became hooked on the idea of sliced bread, as well as Wonder Bread as its preferred brand. But, another crisis was just around the corner.
World War II
Unless you’re more than 75 years old, you can’t remember the last time that sliced bread wasn’t available on the shelf of your local grocery store. That’s because sliced bread was banned in 1943 as a wartime conservation measure. By that time, sliced bread was such a success and perceived necessity that “hundreds of tons of steel went into slicing machines each year, creating a nationwide crisis.”
According to Time magazine, “U.S. housewives … vainly searched for grandmother’s serrated bread knife, routed sleepy husbands out of bed, held dawn conferences over bakery handouts which read like a golf lesson: ‘Keep your head down. Keep your eye on the loaf. And don’t bear down.’ Then came grief, cussing, lopsided slices which even the toaster refused, often a mad dash to the corner bakery for rolls.”
Sliced bread was so integrated into American life that one woman wrote the following letter to the New York Times: “I should like to let you know how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household. My husband and four children are all in a rush during and after breakfast. Without ready-sliced bread I must do the slicing for toast — two pieces for each one — that’s ten. For their lunches I must cut by hand at least twenty slices, for two sandwiches apiece. Afterward I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry.”
Because of public outrage, the ban was lifted just two months after it was instituted. In March, 1943, the government admitted that the savings were not as much as had been expected. The New York Times applauded the government’s decision with a banner headline: “Sliced Bread Put Back on Sale; Housewives’ Thumbs Safe Again.”
Aside from this slight historical hiccup, sliced bread has been part of our experience ever since most of us were born. Writing for “Mental Floss,” Kaitlyn Boettcher comments: “These days, we hardly think about the convenience of it …. And the next invention that proves to be ‘the greatest thing since sliced bread’ may be just around the corner.”
Happy 90th, Sliced Bread.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.