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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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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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