Happy Birthday, Sliced Bread! The 'Greatest Thing' Turns 85 This Week

Good thinking, Otto Frederick Rohwedder.
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On July 7, 1928, Missouri's Chillicothe Baking Company made history by selling the first wrapped package of sliced bread in history.

What took so long?

It starts with the whole wrapping-the-loaf thing. Sliced bread goes stale remarkably quickly, as anybody who's forgotten to tie that little wire thing around a plastic bread bag has learned a million times already. So the trick is inventing a machine that cuts the bread finely while efficiently and securely wrapping the entire loaf.

In 1912, Otto Frederick Rohwedder, a jeweler from Missouri, solved the problem. He invented prototype of a machine that could both slice and wrap a loaf of bread ... only to see his invention destroyed in a fire. Fifteen years and a few tweaks later, he filed this patent, the first ever for a "MACHINE FOR SLICING AN ENTIRE LOAF OF BREAD AT A SINGLE LOCATION."

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At first bakers were not impressed, Don Voorhees explained in Why Do Donuts Have Holes?: Fascinating Facts About What We Eat And Drink. The machine failed in aesthetics where it succeeded in convenience, "[producing] loaves that did not sell because they were sloppy looking." Sliced bread needed a makeover before families realized how great it was ...

Enter one Gustav Papendick. The St. Louis baker brought Rohwedder's second machine in 1928 and perfected it. His improved design packaged the sliced loaves in cardboard trays, keeping the bread neat and orderly, and wrapped it in wax paper.

The first commercial bakery to try a bread-slicing machine was the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri. Sales weren't fast and furious, though. Bakeries were skeptical about the public's acceptance of presliced bread. They thought that the drawbacks of having to buy new equipment and having to wrap the bread right away to keep the slices together might not be worth the trouble. After all, what if this pre sliced bread thing was just a passing fad? Would people really buy bread that would get stale faster just so they wouldn't have to slice it themselves?

Apparently the bakers weren't very farsighted. Presliced bread went national when Wonder introduced it to the country in 1930.

You know the rest. Except for a brief ban on presliced bread at the end of the Second World War (to preserve both food and metal for soldiers), the invention stimulated America's love affair with loaves. And as Americans ate more breads, Voorhees noted, they also ate more spreads: butter, jams, jellies, and so on.

So, two business lessons from sliced bread for the road. First, all innovation is tweaking. Rohwedder's prototype couldn't sell until Papendick perfected it, and presliced bread didn't go mainstream until Wonder Bread took it national two years later. Second, never make a financial bet against American laziness. Bakers who thought American families wouldn't want a service that saved them seconds at the kitchen counter clearly didn't understand the time demands of American families.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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