What was the best thing before sliced bread?
You probably never heard of Chillicothe, Missouri. A 1928 ad called Chillicothe the home of an invention that was “the greatest forward step in baking . . .”
Humans began baking bread long before recorded history. It’s no surprise that bread is considered the “staff of life.” Baking bread is a vital part of human history.
Before 1928, everyone sliced their bread with knives. People couldn’t even imagine pre-sliced bread. Depending on skills, slicing could be a very messy process – crumbs, uneven slices, even a touch of blood from a slipped knife. Yet the system worked for thousands of years.
Until Otto Rohwedder.
Rohwedder was born in 1880 and grew up in Davenport, Iowa. He needed to learn a trade, so he apprenticed as a jeweler. He owned several jewelry stores but wasn’t satisfied. Rohwedder decided to study optics and got a degree from the Illinois College of Optometry.
The experiences in both fields led to his passion for inventing new machines.
His big idea was to develop an automatic bread-slicing machine. Rohwedder sold all his stores, got funding, and began. By 1917, he was almost there. He had a prototype and blueprints for his invention.
Then fire struck.
Rohwedder lost everything.
He fought back. He needed funding and supplies. It took him a long time, but Rohwedder refused to give up. By 1927 he had designed a revolutionary new machine that not only sliced bread but also wrapped it, straight from the oven. Many thought Rohwedder was a crackpot. Why change?
There were no takers.
According to Kerry J. Byrne, Fox News “Few people in the industry believed that bread could be automatically sliced as it came off the assembly line.” Most bakers were against the idea.
Rohwedder was desperate. Confident that his new machine would revolutionize bread-making, he contacted his friend, baker, and owner of the struggling Chillicothe Baking Company. His name was Frank Bench and he was looking for something to save his business.
Bench seized the opportunity.
On July 8, 1928, Otto’s thirteen-year-old son, Richard, caught the first, commercially sliced loaf of bread from Bench’s machine. Every slice was perfect – way better than anyone could get the old-fashioned way. Bench called it Kleen Maid.
Rohwedder turned 48 years old that day.
According to Byrne, it was an “instant sensation, increasing sales by 1,000% in two weeks.”
Today we can’t imagine a world without sliced bread. That actually happened on January 18, 1943, in the middle of WWII. The FDR administration had already rationed sugar, meat, and coffee. They decided to ban sliced bread to conserve wax paper and steel (used to build the machines).
There was a civilian uproar. Jennifer Latson in Time wrote “it created a nationwide crisis . . . provoking as much ire as gas rationing.”
Sue Forrester, from Fairfield, CT wrote a desperate Letter to the Editor in the NY Times, “I should like to let you know how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household.”
The beloved New York City Mayor LaGuardia gave a radio address demanding that bakeries who already had machines should be allowed to use them.
The ban lasted two months.
When sliced bread returned, the NY Times heralded it with a headline, “Sliced Bread Put Back on Sale; Housewives’ Thumbs Safe Again.”
That’s how much we love sliced bread.
Think about what sliced bread means to you: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, French toast, and Reuben sandwiches. It led to the invention of the toaster, sandwich makers, and easy-to-put together sandwiches for school lunchboxes and brown baggers. Don’t forget the hundreds of recipes like grilled cheese, open-faced sandwiches, eggs, and unlimited toppings from butter to jam and cream cheese to avocados. There’s Wonder Bread, along with so many other brands from thin, medium, and thick-sliced to whole wheat, challah, gluten free, and country-style.
Amazon alone has well over 6,000 sandwich cookbooks, makers, and containers.
The next time you eat avocado toast, your favorite sandwich, or PB&J, give Rohwedder a thumbs up.
He earned it.