Bread is a mainstay in many cultures, and a staple food in many people's diets. Its form has also evolved over the years. Whether it is sandwiches with ham and cheese or peanut butter or toast lathered with jam and butter, the convenience of modern sliced bread has made it part of our eating habits today. But how did sliced bread come about?
Before the 20th century, people either made their own bread at home or bought bread in loaves at the local bakery. Whenever anyone wanted a piece of bread, he would have to cut off a slice from the loaf. However, by the first decade of the 20th century, things were about to change.
In 1912, Otto Frederick Rohwedder, a jeweler in St. Joseph, Missouri, began experimenting with the idea of bread-slicing machine. Rohwedder was born on 6 July, 1880 in Des Moines. He grew up in Davenport, Iowa and entered the Northern Illinois College of Ophthalmology and Otology in Chicago, where he received a degree in optics in 1900. After graduation, Rohwedder pursued a career as a jeweler, opening and operating three jewelry stores of his own in St. Joseph.
Firm in his belief about the potential success of such a machine, Rohwedder sold his jewelry business to raise funds for his new venture. Over the next decade, he worked on several designs and prototypes but to no avail. In November 1917, a fire destroyed the factory that was to have produced the first machine, as well as Rohwedder's design plans.
Instead of giving up, Rohwedder went around asking for new investment funds to try again. He also worked as an investment and security agent to financially sustain his family. In the course of fine-tuning his design, Rohwedder knew that he had to find a way to prevent the sliced bread from going stale. In 1928, Rohwedder finally succeeded in solving that problem by making a bread slicing machine that could also wrap the bread. He applied for a patent for his design and established the company Mac-Roh Sales & Manufacturing to produce and sell the machine.
Despite initial skepticism about the bread slicer from commercial bakers who felt that sliced bread would turn stale quickly, Rohwedder convinced a baker friend, M. Frank Bench of Chillicothe Baking Company in Missouri, to try out the machine. Hence, on 7 July 1928, bread, which had been sliced and wrapped by the machine, was commercially sold for the first time. The "Kleen Maid Sliced Bread" was very well-received by the public as customers liked the convenience of having evenly sliced pieces to make toast and sandwiches. During the sales, it was advertised as "the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped." (This was what subsequently led to the popular phrase "the greatest thing since sliced bread".)
Subsequently, Gustav Papendick, a baker in St. Louis, Missouri, bought the bread slicer and improved on it, such that it could both slice and wrap the bread in such a way to keep the bread fresh. Papendick's method was to lay the sliced pieces aligned on a cardboard tray to allow mechanised wrapping to take place.
In 1930, the Continental Baking Company used the machine to introduce the sliced Wonder Bread, which became very popular among consumers. By 1933, many bakeries in America had acquired the bread slicer and were selling more sliced bread than unsliced ones. With the ease of getting slices of bread, more and more people began to consume bread. This also helped to promote the use of the electric toaster and bread spreads like jam.
In 1929, due to financial problems arising from the Great Depression, Rohwedder had to sell the rights to his invention to the Micro-Westco Company, though the company also employed him to serve as the vice-president of the Rohwedder Bakery Machine division. Subsequently known as "the father of sliced bread", Rohwedder was often invited to speak to groups around the country. He died in Concord, Michigan, on 8 November 1960.
One of the first models of his original slicing machine is now housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
As a sidenote to this story, the electric toaster was actually invented before the bread slicer. Prior to its invention, bread was toasted by putting it on a metal frame which was placed over a fire or holding it near the fire with a long-handled tool.
The first electric bread toaster was invented by Maddy Kennedy in 1872, though the reliability of the machine and that electricity was not widely available did not make it commercially successful. In 1919, Charles Strite invented the first automatic pop-up toaster. The ability to simultaneously heat both sides of the bread within a designated time made it a convenient household appliance.
With the subsequent appearance of the machine-sliced bread in 1928, the electric toaster changed our bread-eating habits which have lasted till today.