The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread: A Brief History of Sliced Bread

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The seemingly mundane practice of machine-slicing bread has a celebrated past.

[optional image description] An image of a bread-slicing machine in Popular Science, 1930 (Wikipedia)

We owe sliced bread as we know it to Otto Rohwedder, who built the first commercial loaf-at-a-time bread-slicing machine. As Paul Wenske recounts in The Kansas City Star, Rohwedder spent 13 years perfecting the technology and struggled to kindle interest in the enterprise; "many bakers rejected the invention, saying the bread would fall apart and grow stale too fast. They contended consumers didn't care whether their bread loaves were sliced." They were wrong. The Chillicothe Baking Company, in Chillicothe, Missouri, finally put the machine to work in 1928 and it was a hit. The local paper even reported it on the front page

So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.

Chillicothe's claim to fame was lost and found, Wenske explains in his thoroughly entertaining article, pegged to the 75th anniversary of the invention -- the story remained buried until it was rediscovered by Kathy Stortz Ripley, an editor at the same Chillicothe paper

The simplicity of the concept belies the complexity of the system, apparent in Rohwedder's 1932 patent (above). Now the phrase, "the best thing since sliced bread," is often tongue-in-cheek, but early enthusiasm for the product was genuine. In a look at the origins of the phrase, Art Mollela explains

By the 1930s, pre-sliced bread was fully commercialized, and standardization was reinforced by other inventions that required uniform slices, such as toasters. The common phrase, "the best thing since sliced bread," as a way of hyping a new product or invention may have come into use based on an advertising slogan for Wonder Bread, the first commercial manufacturer of pre-wrapped, pre-sliced bread. With such products rapidly penetrating the American home, automated bread-making was not only an invention benchmark, but also a key indicator of the mechanization of daily life from the 1930s onward.

In 1943, the government actually banned sliced bread, motivated by the need to conserve resources during the war effort. "The country needed airplanes more than it needed bread-slicing blades," according to Wenske, and sacrifices would have to be made. The people wouldn't stand for it, however, and the government dropped the ban just a couple months later. 

See the baking (and slicing) process in action in this short clip from an educational film, The Baking Industry, produced by Vocational Guidance Films, Inc, in 1946. This is just an excerpt from the 10-minute short, which is available in its entirety at the Internet Archive

For more films from the Internet Archive, visit http://www.archive.org/.

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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