Friday, July 8, 2011

Our Daily Bread

Most of us at one time or another have baked bread at home or bought full uncut loaves at the bakery or market. But personally cutting off a slice of bread every time we want one usually means ragged, irregular cuts and maybe even a cut finger. The truth is, we’ve lost the skill of daily cutting our own bread and instead rely on the bread companies and bakeries for that favor. In the bakery the other day I liked the look of one particular loaf of bread, one not yet cut into slices. I bought it anyway, looking forward to a fresh ham and swiss sandwich on German rye. Unfortunately, despite the sharp bread knife I made a bad job of slicing the bread and the sandwich mostly fell apart in my hands, a sloppy mess.

These bad cuts were probably a common occurrence for many prior to 1928, a time when people baked their own bread, or bought it in solid loaves. A few years prior to that, a jeweler in Davenport, Iowa began tinkering with an invention he called the Rohwedder Bread Slicer. His name was Otto Frederick Rohwedder and he tried selling his invention to bakeries but they scoffed, telling him that pre-sliced bread would get stale and dry before it could be eaten. Finally he got the idea of wrapping the just sliced bread in waxed paper, but that didn’t work either. He wound up taking his bread slicer to Chillicothe, Missouri, and there met a baker willing to take a chance on Rohwedder’s five-foot long, three-foot high slicing and wrapping machine. Baker Frank Rich put ads in the Chillicothe newspaper: “ANNOUNCING: THE GREATEST FORWARD STEP IN THE BAKING INDUSTRY SINCE BREAD WAS WRAPPED—SLICED KLEEN MAID BREAD. On July 7, 1928 sliced bread appeared on bakery shelves for the first time. Sales went through the roof and in 1930 Wonder Bread began marketing sliced bread nationwide.

Rohwedder’s slicer produced uniform and thinner slices of bread, and as a result people ate more slices at a time, and because of the ease, ate bread more frequently. Consumption of bread increased, and in turn spreads such as jam and peanut butter became popular. Sliced bread saved people hours of drudgery, it put toasters in every home, and it resulted in millions of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Charles Strite’s 1926 spring-loaded, automatic, pop-up toaster had few buyers until Rohwedder came up with standardized slices of bread, and then the toaster suddenly made sense.

In one quirky interlude in January of 1943 a wartime conservation plan banned sliced bread, though it didn’t last beyond early March. One wife and mother wrote to complain: 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!

Rohwedder not only gave Americans the gift of convenience, but he also provided the basis of an expression that describes the ultimate in innovation: “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

Though his name is connected to a life changing invention, Otto Rohwedder is pretty much a footnote in history—the Smithsonian’s American History Museum lacks any information on the origins of sliced bread. Until the advent of email and cell phones few inventions so monumentally capitalized on the consumer’s love of convenience.


  1. WOW - so true. I never realized the link between sliced bread and the toaster and peanut butter and jelly. The housewife's comment about having to cut 22 slices of bread in a hurry really hit home. There were 4 kids in our family, plus my Mom and Dad - and she baked all her own bread. What a great "slicer" she was and I never realized it! Great post! I'm going to send it on to my kids to read!

  2. Well, you CAN keep buying unsliced bread. All you need is one of those 5' by 3' slicing machines tucked away in the corner of the kitchen. Or maybe stored on the beach as a replica of a Sherman tank. All kidding aside, very interesting post.

  3. Very interesting post. I never knew about the history of sliced bread except for the saying "the greatest thing since sliced bread". I do prefer unsliced bread when I've taken it hot out of the oven......but these days that's not often.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America