A Brief History of Sliced Bread

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Every new and clever innovation seems to win the praise of being “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Have you ever wondered, how long has it actually been since sliced bread was first sliced? The answer: sliced bread is turning 85 this year!

The concept of sliced bread first came about thanks to Otto Rohwedder, an American inventor from Iowa. Rohwedder constructed the first loaf-at-a-time bread-slicing machine for commercial use, but initially had some trouble selling it, or even the idea of it; many bakers expressed concerns about the bread becoming stale too quickly or simply falling apart if sliced.

At first, to combat the worry of the bread quickly going stale, Rohwedder recommended the use of pins to hold the bread together after slicing. Since removing pins to get a slice of bread was inconvenient, Rohwedder soon amended his packaging plan: The loaves of sliced bread were to be wrapped in thick wax paper immediately after being sliced, to keep them fresh. Despite these ideas, bakers were still convinced that customers wouldn’t care whether or not their bread was sliced.

But the Chillicothe Baking Company, in Chillicothe, Missouri, was willing to give Rohwedder’s invention a chance. They installed the machine and began to sell “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread” on July 7, 1928. The day before this bread was to be put on store shelves, the local newspaper, the Constitution-Tribune, ran both a front page article and a full page ad to inform the public and promote the product:

“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.”

The full page ad on the back page of that day’s Constitution-Tribune included the same sorts of endorsements, calling it “a fine loaf sold a better way.” Among other things, the ad included instructions on how to deal with the wrapping and the pins in the bread in order to keep the loaf fresh. At the top of the page, the ad proudly announced that sliced bread was “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” While there is no definitive proof, it is likely that today’s phrase, “the greatest thing since sliced bread,” was derived from this original slogan for the product.

To the surprise of many—though certainly not Rohwedder—sliced bread became a big success and the phenomenon quickly spread. By 1930, only two years after the debut of sliced bread, Wonder Bread was building its own machines and distributing pre-sliced loaves of bread throughout the United States. This product is what put Wonder Bread’s name on the map.

It seems that the history of sliced bread should end here, but that's not the case. For about two months in 1943, sliced bread disappeared from the shelves completely. In the midst of World War II, the government ordered a ban on sliced bread. The manufacturing of weaponry and other wartime necessities was deemed more important than the manufacturing of bread-slicing machines, and the conservation of materials—such as the thick wax paper used to wrap the loaves—was integral. But the ban did not go over well with bread making companies or with the general public. One woman even wrote a letter to the New York Times admonishing the ban:

“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!”

After being initiated in January, the ban on sliced bread was lifted in March of 1943. The government said that the savings were not as much as were expected, but the quick turnaround of the ban likely had to do with the severe backlash from producers and consumers.

Apart from that slight hiccup, sliced bread has been in our lives for 85 years. These days, we hardly think about the convenience of it; a sandwich or a slice of toast can easily be at our fingertips. And the next invention that proves to be “the greatest thing since sliced bread” may be just around the corner.

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July 7, 2013 - 2:00pm
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