These days all kinds of supermarket breads are available pre-sliced, and every neighborhood bakery has a bread slicer. But whenever I hear that expression, I always think of the cottony Wonder Bread-type stuff.
For me, today’s recipe may be the greatest thing since the invention of Wonder Bread. But while I was thinking about the recipe, I thought I’d look into the history of sliced bread. It turned out to be a lot more interesting than I’d imagined.
The one-loaf-at-a-time bread slicer was invented by Otto Rohwedder, who grew up in Iowa as the son of German immigrants. At 20, he moved to Chicago where he earned a degree in optometry and did an apprenticeship with a jeweler.
In 1905, Rohwedder moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, acquired three jewelry shops, and used his profits to invent new tools and machines.
As he started thinking about a bread-slicing machine, he wondered how thick he should make the slices, so he put a questionnaire in several large newspapers, garnering responses from 30,000 housewives.
In 1916, he sold his jewelry stores and used the profits to built a prototype bread slicer. Even a fire at his warehouse, which destroyed his machine and all his blueprints, failed to deter him.
One of the problems with pre-sliced bread was the perception (mostly justified) that the bread would get stale faster than a whole loaf. By 1927, Rohwedder had built a machine that solved this problem by tightly wrapping the
sliced loaves in waxed paper. This kept the slices together as a loaf and preserved freshnhess.
A tough sell
Bakers weren’t interested. The machine was bulky, five feet wide by three feet high. Finally Rohwedder asked a baker friend, Frank Bench, to give it a chance. Bench was on the brink of bankruptcy, but he decided to invest in the slicer.
The machine was installed at the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri, and on July 7, 1928, the company sold the first loaf of commercial sliced bread, called Kleen Maid.
(According to Wikipedia, Battle Creek, Michigan has a competing claim as the first city to sell bread sliced by Rohwedder’s machine; however, historians have produced no documentation backing up Battle Creek’s claim.)
Frank Bench’s bread sales increased by 2,000 percent within two weeks.
The New York-based Continental Baking Company started using Rohwedder’s machines in 1930 and created Wonder Bread.
By 1933, 80 percent of the bread produced in America was sold pre-sliced.
A ban on sliced bread
While housewives of the 1930s were thrilled not to have to slice bread every day, U.S. Food Administrator Claude R. Wickard ordered a ban”on sliced bread in 1943, citing wartime conservation efforts.
The government capitulated less than three months later, after a tremendous outcry from customers. Wickard said the War Production Board decided the industry’s use of waxed paper would not affect the country’s defense.
The bread slicer may not be the most important invention in human history, but Otto Rohwedder couldn’t ask for a better tribute than describing something new and exciting as “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
My husband loves to bake bread, so I hardly ever buy sliced bread, especially the puffy, white supermarket variety. But I made an exception when I found this recipe, which makes a lovely dessert for this time of year when berries are plentiful. It’s from the New York Times, which is a little surprising considering how easy it is to make.