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Bread is one of the world’s oldest prepared foods. There’s evidence humans were whipping up a crude form of the stuff some 30,000 years ago. Sliced bread, however, has been around for less than a century. The first automatically sliced commercial loaves were produced on July 6, 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri, using a machine invented by Otto Rohwedder, an Iowa-born, Missouri-based jeweler. Rohwedder’s quest to make sliced bread a reality was not without its challenges. A 1917 fire destroyed his prototype and blueprints, and he also faced skepticism from bakers, who thought factory-sliced loaves would quickly go stale or fall apart. Nevertheless, in 1928, Rohwedder’s rebuilt “power-driven, multi-bladed” bread slicer was put into service at his friend Frank Bench’s Chillicothe Baking Company.
Rohwedder’s newfangled contraption was greeted with an enthusiastic report in the July 6, 1928, edition of the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, which noted that while some people might find sliced bread “startling,” the typical housewife could expect “a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows. 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.” The article also recounted that “considerable research” had gone into determining the right thickness for each slice: slightly less than half an inch.
Sliced bread didn’t take long to become a hit around the United States, even as some bakers contended it was just a fad, and by 1930 it could be found in most towns across the country. By that point, the majority of Americans were eating commercially made bread, compared with just decades earlier, when most of the supply still was homemade. The factory-produced loaves were designed to be softer than those prepared at home or at small, local bakeries because the bread-buying public had come to equate “squeezable softness” with freshness, according to “White Bread” by Aaron Bobrow-Strain. The timing therefore was right for an automatic slicing machine because, as Bobrow-Strain says, these softer, “modern loaves had become almost impossible to slice neatly at home.”
One of the first major brands to distribute sliced bread was Wonder, starting in 1930. Wonder Bread originally appeared in stores in 1921 in Indianapolis, where it was manufactured by the Taggart Baking Company. An executive there dreamed up the bread’s name after being filled with wonder while watching the International Balloon Race at the Indianapolis Speedway. After the Continental Baking Company bought Taggart in 1925, Wonder was sold nationally; the bread’s popularity soared once it was marketed in sliced form. During World War II, factory-sliced bread, including Wonder, was briefly banned by the U.S. government in an effort to conserve resources, such as the paper used to wrap each loaf to help maintain freshness. In 2012, Wonder Bread disappeared completely from store shelves after its then-owner, Hostess Brands (which also made Twinkies and Ding Dongs, among other famous snacks), declared bankruptcy. Thankfully for fans of the iconic bread, another company stepped in and re-launched the Wonder brand in 2013.
Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, United States, invented the first single loaf bread-slicing machine. A prototype he built in 1912 was destroyed in a fire  and it was not until 1928 that Rohwedder had a fully working machine ready. The first commercial use of the machine was by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, which sold their first slices on July 7, 1928.  Their product, "Kleen Maid Sliced Bread", proved to be a success. 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.  The bread was advertised as "the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped".
St. Louis baker Gustav Papendick bought Rohwedder's second bread slicer and set out to improve it by devising a way to keep the slices together at least long enough to allow the loaves to be wrapped.  After failures trying rubber bands and metal pins, he settled on placing the slices into a cardboard tray. The tray aligned the slices, allowing mechanized wrapping machines to function. 
W.E. Long, who promoted the Holsum Bread brand, used by various independent bakers around the country, pioneered and promoted the packaging of sliced bread beginning in 1928.  In 1930 Wonder Bread, first sold in 1925, started marketing sliced bread nationwide.
As commercially sliced bread resulted in uniform and somewhat thinner slices, people ate more slices of bread at a time. They also ate bread more frequently, because of the ease of getting and eating another piece of bread. This increased consumption of bread and, in turn, increased consumption of spreads, such as jam, to put on the bread. 
During 1943, U.S. officials imposed a short-lived ban on sliced bread as a wartime conservation measure.   The ban was ordered by Claude R. Wickard who held the position of Food Administrator, and took effect on January 18, 1943. According to The New York Times, officials explained that "the ready-sliced loaf must have a heavier wrapping than an unsliced one if it is not to dry out." It was also intended to counteract a rise in the price of bread, caused by the Office of Price Administration's authorization of a ten percent increase in flour prices. 
In a Sunday radio address on January 24, New York City Mayor LaGuardia suggested that bakeries that had their own bread-slicing machines should be allowed to continue to use them, and on January 26, 1943, a letter appeared in The New York Times from a distraught housewife:
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! 
On January 26, however, John F. Conaboy, the New York Area Supervisor of the Food Distribution Administration, warned bakeries, delicatessens, and other stores that were continuing to slice bread to stop, saying that "to protect the cooperating bakeries against the unfair competition of those who continue to slice their own bread. we are prepared to take stern measures if necessary." 
On March 8, 1943, the ban was rescinded. While public outcry is generally credited for the reversal, Wickard stated that "Our experience with the order, however, leads us to believe that the savings are not as much as we expected, and the War Production Board tells us that sufficient wax paper to wrap sliced bread for four months is in the hands of paper processor and the baking industry." 
Due to its convenience, sliced bread is popular in many parts of the world, and the usual thickness varies by company and country:
- In the United Kingdom, sliced bread is sold as either "Extra Thick", "Thick", "Medium" or "Thin" varying across the 5–20 mm range. 
- In the Republic of Ireland, the most popular bread type is known as "sliced pan",  sold in 800- or 400-gram loaves, wrapped in wax paper, with the slices conveniently sized for making sandwiches and toast. 
- In Japan, the same half-loaf of bread is labeled by the number of slices  (usually 4, 5, 6, or 7, and occasionally 8 or 10). Thin sliced crustless "sandwich bread" is also sold in Japan, since regular 4–6 slice bread is deemed too thick.
- In Canada and the United States, Texas toast is a type of packaged bread which is sliced at double the typical thickness of most slices of bread. 
The phrase "the greatest thing since sliced bread" is a common idiom used to praise an invention or development. A writer for The Kansas City Star wrote that "the phrase is the ultimate depiction of innovative achievement and American know-how." 
In 1933, an advertisement for a bread offering thick and thin slices in the same loaf called it "the first improvement since sliced bread".  In 1940, a package of bread consisting of two wrapped half-loaves was advertised as the "greatest convenience since sliced bread". 
A popular joke with sliced bread is that Betty White is older than sliced bread (she was born in 1922). 
Who Invented Bread?
Unlike chocolate chip cookies or tomato soup, the invention of bread can't be pinned down to a single person or people instead, it evolved to its present state over the course of millennia.
Although the modern version of sliced bread is a fairly new invention (Wonder Bread began marketing the first sliced loaf of bread in 1930), bread itself is an ancient food with origins dating back more than 22,000 years.
In 2004, at an excavation site called Ohalo II, in what is modern-day Israel, scientists found 22,000-year-old barley grains caught in a grinding stone: the first evidence of humans processing wild cereal grains. But these early "bread" creations were probably more like "flat cakes of ground seeds and grains heated on a rock, or in the embers of a fire," than standard sandwich bread, Howard Miller, a food historian and professor at Lipscomb Universityin Nashville, Tennessee, told Live Science. [Why It Took So Long to Invent the Wheel]
Bread grains, the first plants to be domesticated, were first harvested in the wild by the Natufians. This Mesolithic group of hunter-gatherers lived in the Jordan River Valley region of the Middle East about 12,500 years ago.
"The Natufians are thought to be the first people to make the transition between survival purely on foods that you harvest from nature to becoming farmers who control all aspects of the food supply," William Rubel, a food historian and author of "Bread: A Global History" (Reaktion Books, 2011), told Live Science. "The Natufians had the infrastructure for grinding barley and then making it into bread."
The Natufians had the earliest known agricultural-based society and would process grains into a coarse flour, from which they made a "small, pita-like, unleavened loaf cooked directly on the coals of a fire," Miller said.
Over the next several thousand years, agriculture and the cultivation of grains spread across the Middle East and southwest Asia through trade contacts with other hunter-gatherer peoples in the Nile Valley, Mesopotamia and east of the Indus Valley.
"Bread was the evolutionary spark that led to the development of state and large political units," Rubel said. "Bread allowed for the accumulation of surplus, and so the villages got bigger until you had actual cities."
More than 5,000 years after the Natufians began making flatbread, three civilizations were rapidly growing and expanding during the Bronze Age: the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians (in what is modern-day Iraq) and the Harappans (in the Indus Valley, in what is modern-day Pakistan). All three civilizations, considered the largest in the ancient world, depended on bread.
"Bread was the majority of their calories," Rubel said. "Bread allowed for the building of surpluses and developing of [social] classes. You didn't have a class of full-time artisans until you had bread."
The first-known leavened bread made with semi-domesticated yeast dates back to around 1000 B.C. in Egypt, according to Miller. However, scholars debate the exact origin, as evidence suggests that Mesopotamians also produced yeast-risen bread, Rubel said.
In fact, the invention of yeast-risen bread likely has boozy roots. Ancient Egyptians used barley and emmer wheat both to brew sour beer and to make sourdough bread, according to a 1994 study in the journal Egyptian Archeology. The ancient Egyptians could have made beer by baking "richly yeasted dough" into "beer loaves," then crumbling that bread and straining it with water, which would then ferment into beer, according to the book "Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology" (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
"Beer is liquid bread," Miller said. "They have the same ingredients &mdash water, grain, yeast &mdash just in different proportions."
From the cradle of civilization's flatbreads to the packaged supermarket slices we know today, bread has evolved alongside society, ever since humans first crushed grains against a grinding stone thousands of years ago.
The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread: A Brief History of Sliced Bread
Sliced bread as we know it was invented in 1928. See the process in action at a 1940s industrial bakery in this archival clip.
The seemingly mundane practice of machine-slicing bread has a celebrated past.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.
Who Invented Sliced Bread? - HISTORY
An idiom that is often used when something is new and fantastic is that, “It’s the best thing since sliced bread!” But how did this saying come to be? And what makes sliced bread so darn great? Our story begins about thirty thousand years ago, takes us through the town of Chillicothe, Missouri, and, then, to a futuristic ‘wonder’ful bread that is still on grocery store shelves today.
Humans, and potentially Neanderthals, began grinding cattail, an edible plant that is still found in wetland habitats today, into flour approximately thirty thousand years ago. These humans realized that flour, chocked full of starch and carbohydrates, was a good source of energy and allowed them to be more mobile during their nomadic days. Additionally, cooking or baking the flour made the starch taste better. Researchers discovered this thanks to remains and traces of starch grains embedded in fossilized food preparation tools.
The first man-made bread, likely, was unleavened, as in there was no yeast added. Today, we still eat certain types of unleavened bread, like naan, matzah, and flour tortillas.
While humans didn’t understand the mechanism behind it, at some point it was discovered that if bread was left out in the open, spores of yeast, a naturally forming microorganism that floats through the air, would infiltrate the grains and make it “raise.” Leavened bread and the use of yeast in bread-making began sometime around four thousand years ago in ancient Egypt. In fact, archaeologists have found early grinding stones and baking chambers for yeast-based bread in Egyptian ruins, as well as drawings for thousands-of-year-old bakeries and breweries (see: A Brief History of Beer).
From that point forward, bread and wheat became a staple in humankind’s diet. The domestication of wheat allowed civilizations to transition from hunters, gatherers, and nomads to farmers, growers, and urban dwellers. Bread was cooked in every household and was eaten at most meals. It came in all shapes, sizes, and consistency. For about five thousand years, bread-making was all done by hand, a necessary, but laborious practice. That is, until the industrial age.
In 1859, Louis Pasteur discovered how yeast worked, and with that, the mass production of yeast began. Charles Fleischman began selling yeast cells in test tubes to bakers in 1863. By 1868, Fleischman was wrapping yeast in tin foil. At the turn of the century, advertisements began popping up in newspapers and journals for yeast “of the purest quality.”
Stone flour mills appeared first in Europe at the turn of the 19th century and, then, in America in the 1820s and 1830s. The Erie Canal in the American northeast aided the transportation of this mass-produced flour. In fact, Rochester, New York earned the nickname “Flour City” because, within days of the canal opening, twenty flour mills began operations in Rochester, sending their product all over the east coast. Bread was no longer a homemade item, but produced for the masses as quickly, cheaply, uniform, and efficiently as possible.
The first bread slicing machines, using parallel steel blades, appeared in America in the 1860s. However, pre-sliced bread sold to the masses didn’t come about until 1928 when a man named Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa invented a device to automate this process.
He first built a prototype of his bread slicer in 1912, which didn’t interest bakers he showed it to as it was thought that no one would want their bread pre-sliced. Unfortunately, Rohwedder’s blueprints and machine were destroyed in a fire in 1917.
From there, he struggled to obtain funding to begin again on his machine owing to the lack of interest. The primary concern was the reduction in shelf life of the bread. Rohwedder got around part of the staleness problem by wrapping the thinly sliced loaves in wax paper directly after slicing was complete.
Finally, in 1927, Rohwedder was able to re-build the machine and produce a model ready to use in an actual bakery. He sold his bread slicing and wrapping machine to the Chillicothe Baking Company, in Chillicothe, Missouri, about ninety miles northeast of Kansas City. The front page of the town’s newspaper announced the arrival of this new standard of living with the headline, “Sliced Bread is Made Here.”
A back page ad on July 6, 1928 claimed it was the “greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” Customers loved the convenience, reliability, and consistency of sliced bread. More and more bakeries wanted their own machines, including the Taggart Baking Company in Indianapolis.
Alexander Taggart was a third-generation baker. Alexander’s father, after learning everything he knew about baking from his father while living on the Isle of Man (a small island in the Irish Sea between Ireland and Great Britain), immigrated to the US shortly after the Civil War. He opened his first bakery in Indianapolis in 1869, eventually joining forces with another baker, Burton Parrott, with whom they opened Parrott-Taggart Baking Company together.
By 1898, they had sold and help found the United States Baking Company, which merged into the National Biscuit Company, aka Nabisco (changed their name to this in 1901).
Taggert and Parrott continued to operate under their own banner, but nationally as part of Nabisco. But in 1904, Taggart sold his share of the company. According to Cluster Mag’s article “A Visual History of Wonder Bread,” between 1899 and 1919, “the value of bread and bakery products produced in Indiana grew 620%.”
Taggart must have saw this coming because he took the money he made from his sold shares and invested it into his own company, Taggart Baking Company, with his brother, Joe, and son, Alexander Jr. Within a few years, Taggart became the largest bread bakery in the state making 300,000 loaves per week. They expanded their operations and factory. In the centuries-old bread making process, machines were now replacing human hands. Taggart embraced this and began touting that their bread was the future, unlike “anything that could be baked at home.”
On May 19, 1921 in the newspaper Indianapolis Star, a small advertisement appeared (directly above Dr. William Osborne and his “Self-Adjusting Rupture Appliance”) that said simply ”WONDER? How often do you use this word every day? Check yourself.”
Two days later, another ad appeared that told readers that they’ll “never find WONDER of a better kind.”
Finally, on May 24th, a full page revealed what all this “wondering” was about: Taggart’s Wonder Bread – “a truly wonderful bread” – was here. As put by Clutter Magazine, “this new, virgin white, 1.5 pound loaf perfectly evoked the otherworldliness of the enormous manufacturing system that was seen as America’s future.”
Within only a few years, Wonder Bread was America’s favorite bread. In 1930, Wonder Bread became the first mass-produced bread to be pre-sliced.
This brings us back to “The best thing since sliced bread.” It is thought by most etymologists that it loosely stems from the aforementioned July 6, 1928 back page ad in Chillicothe’s newspaper (“The greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.”) and, later, Wonder Bread’s own constant hyping along a similar vein of its pre-sliced bread.
As for the first documented reference to the exact phrase, this is thought to be in a 1952 interview where the famous comedian Red Skelton “advised” the Salisbury (Maryland) Times to “not worry about television. It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
The invention of sliced bread was yet another case where things humans used to do by hand were now being done by machines, making it significantly more convenient than ever before to make things like sandwiches (which gave rise to such things as the peanut butter and jelly sandwich- see: The Surprisingly Short History of the Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich).
So what was the best thing before sliced bread? If you believe Chillicothe’s, it was wrapped bread, but that seems only a minor advancement. After all, whole loaves typically keep pretty well without being wrapped. Given how drastically bread helped change the way humans lived many thousands of years ago setting up so much of history, civilization, and the accumulation of knowledge since, it could possibly be said that machine-made, pre-sliced bread was the greatest thing since, well, bread.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:
A Brief History of Sliced Bread
Every new and clever innovation seems to win the praise of being “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Have you ever wondered, how long has it actually been since sliced bread was first sliced? The answer: sliced bread is turning 85 this year!
The concept of sliced bread first came about thanks to Otto Rohwedder, an American inventor from Iowa. Rohwedder constructed the first loaf-at-a-time bread-slicing machine for commercial use, but initially had some trouble selling it, or even the idea of it many bakers expressed concerns about the bread becoming stale too quickly or simply falling apart if sliced.
At first, to combat the worry of the bread quickly going stale, Rohwedder recommended the use of pins to hold the bread together after slicing. Since removing pins to get a slice of bread was inconvenient, Rohwedder soon amended his packaging plan: The loaves of sliced bread were to be wrapped in thick wax paper immediately after being sliced, to keep them fresh. Despite these ideas, bakers were still convinced that customers wouldn’t care whether or not their bread was sliced.
But the Chillicothe Baking Company, in Chillicothe, Missouri, was willing to give Rohwedder’s invention a chance. They installed the machine and began to sell “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread” on July 7, 1928. The day before this bread was to be put on store shelves, the local newspaper, the Constitution-Tribune, ran both a front page article and a full page ad to inform the public and promote the product:
“After all the idea of sliced bread is not unlike the idea of ground coffee, sliced bacon and many other modern and generally accepted products which combine superior results with a saving of time and effort.”
The full page ad on the back page of that day’s Constitution-Tribune included the same sorts of endorsements, calling it “a fine loaf sold a better way.” Among other things, the ad included instructions on how to deal with the wrapping and the pins in the bread in order to keep the loaf fresh. At the top of the page, the ad proudly announced that sliced bread was “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” While there is no definitive proof, it is likely that today’s phrase, “the greatest thing since sliced bread,” was derived from this original slogan for the product.
To the surprise of many—though certainly not Rohwedder—sliced bread became a big success and the phenomenon quickly spread. By 1930, only two years after the debut of sliced bread, Wonder Bread was building its own machines and distributing pre-sliced loaves of bread throughout the United States. This product is what put Wonder Bread’s name on the map.
It seems that the history of sliced bread should end here, but that's not the case. For about two months in 1943, sliced bread disappeared from the shelves completely. In the midst of World War II, the government ordered a ban on sliced bread. The manufacturing of weaponry and other wartime necessities was deemed more important than the manufacturing of bread-slicing machines, and the conservation of materials—such as the thick wax paper used to wrap the loaves—was integral. But the ban did not go over well with bread making companies or with the general public. One woman even wrote a letter to the New York Times admonishing the ban:
“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!”
After being initiated in January, the ban on sliced bread was lifted in March of 1943. The government said that the savings were not as much as were expected, but the quick turnaround of the ban likely had to do with the severe backlash from producers and consumers.
Apart from that slight hiccup, sliced bread has been in our lives for 85 years. These days, we hardly think about the convenience of it a sandwich or a slice of toast can easily be at our fingertips. And the next invention that proves to be “the greatest thing since sliced bread” may be just around the corner.
The man who invented sliced bread and the origins of the popular phrase
Lots of things are declared “the greatest thing since sliced bread,” but have you ever wondered, just what timeline we are talking here? Sliced bread is one of those inventions that seems like it should have always been part of our diets, and the accompanying phrase, forever part of our vernacular. But it’s much more recent than you would expect. So when was this ubiquitous food staple first invented?
Bread is one of the world’s most commonly prepared foods — it’s also one of the oldest. There is evidence of humans making crude variations of the stuff as far back as the Neolithic era.
Sliced bread, however? That’s a different story.
For perspective, Queen Elizabeth II, Tony Bennett, and Betty White are all older than sliced bread.
The first automatically sliced commercial loaves of bread didn’t hit production until July 6, 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri. It was all made possible thanks to a machine invented by jeweler and trained optometrist, Otto Frederick Rohwedder.
The Iowa-born (1880), Missouri-based inventor faced some challenges in his quest to create uniform slices of bread. The invention would have hit store shelves much sooner, but a 1917 fire destroyed his prototype and his blueprints.
Despite his setbacks, Rohwedder rebuilt his “power-drive, multi-bladed” bread slicer, and by 1927, he successfully produced a machine that would perfectly and evenly slice bread. By 1928, the device had been put to service commercially at the Chillicothe Baking Company.
The new contraption hit front page headlines in the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune on July 6, 1928. The report states:
“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 received a hearty and permanent welcome.”
The success of sliced bread took off from there, and by 1930 sliced bread could be found in nearly every town across the country. In the 1920s, homemade bread was still predominant, but by 1930, most Americans had switched the the convenience of eating mass-produced bread. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Rohwedder’s invention, in that the soft, sponge-like factory loaves were almost too soft to slice neatly at home.
In 1930, Continental Baking Company’s now iconic Wonder Bread became the first national brand to be sold sliced. Other major brands followed. By 1933, American bakeries were selling more sliced than unsliced bread loaves.
The availability of sliced bread nationwide drove sales for another bread-related invention — the toaster, invented in 1926 by Charles Strite.
Rohwedder developed seven patents between the years 1927 – 1936 — all having to do with bread slicing and handling. His original invention is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
And as for the phrase, “the best thing since sliced bread?” The common saying may have its origins in the Chillicothe’s original newspaper article where sliced bread is described as “The greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” Later, Wonder Bread came to use similar advertising slogans in sales campaigns. The first documented use of the exact phrase is thought to have been during a 1952 interview when the famous comedian Red Skelton told the Salisbury (Maryland) Times, “not to worry about television. It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
So there you have it. Let’s raise a toast (we couldn’t resist) to Rohwedder, Strite, Skelton, and the fun, relatively recent history of sliced bread.
And know that when you say “The greatest thing since sliced bread,” you’re basically saying “The greatest thing since 1928.”
Who Invented Sliced Bread? - HISTORY
Image Source: CNN/Jim Nowak
Despite all of our worldly excesses, the sandwich is proof that at our core, people are pragmatic. Before the term “sandwich” was coined, this portable food was simply called “meat on bread,” which frankly doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Hot or cold, savory or sweet, finger-food or foot-long, this layered culinary staple isn’t leaving the world’s collective menu anytime soon. In honor of National Sandwich day, November 3rd, here’s a look at how the history of the sandwich stacks up:
Any way you slice it, the origin of the sandwich is difficult to trace. There are, however, several people throughout ancient history who have been seen with one in their hands (and mouths). The first recorded was Hillel the Elder, a prominent Jewish rabbi who lived around the 1st century, BC. When not crafting the Golden Rule, Hillel is believed to have placed a mixture of chopped nuts, spices, apples, and wine (somehow) between two matzos, which were to be eaten with bitter herbs. It seems that he was the first person to have a sandwich named after him: Hillel’s concoction became so ingrained in the observation of Passover that the food became known as a “Hillel sandwich.”
Hillel the Elder, integrating wine into sandwiches since the 1st century. Image Source: yin and yanglican
During the Middle Ages (between the 6th and 16th centuries A.D.) people ate not from plates, but blocks of stale bread known as trenchers. Among other foods, meats with sauce were piled on top of the trenchers and eaten with the fingers. The trencher would soak up the excess juices due to its thick and absorbent texture, and would be eaten if the diner was still hungry at the end of the meal. Otherwise, the trencher was either thrown away or given to the poor.
The sandwich didn’t become the sandwich until the 18th century. In the middle of a 24-hour gambling event, the story goes that Fourth Earl of Sandwich John Montagu wanted to be able to continue betting without taking a lunch break. He had previously visited the Mediterranean, where he saw the pita breads and small canapes served by the Greeks and Turks. Montagu instructed an aide to put together a similar meal for him that could be eaten with one hand, leaving him able to continue his gambling spree.
John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich and gambling enthusiast. Image Source: Delicious History
Though the Montagu didn’t technically invent the sandwich, he gets the credit for making it popular and – in a way – naming it. In the book Sandwich: A Global History, author Bee Wilson writes that people soon began ordering “the same as Sandwich,” which later was shortened to simply ordering a “sandwich.”
Who, then, introduced the sandwich to America? It was likely Englishwoman Elizabeth Leslie, who in her 1850 cookbook Directions for Cookery, In Its Various Branches, suggested *gasp* serving a ham sandwich as a main dish. In her instructions, Leslie writes: “Cut some thin slices of bread very neatly, having slightly buttered them and, if you choose, spread on a very little mustard. Have ready some very thin slices of cold boiled ham, and lay one between two slices of bread. You may either roll them up, or lay them flat on the plates. They are used at supper or at luncheon.”
Elizabeth Leslie, cookbook author and ham sandwich advocate Image Source: Revolutionary Pie
The final layer in the history of the sandwich is thanks to Otto Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, who in the 1920s invented the bread slicing machine. Rohwedder’s invention made life easier for housewives the world over, eventually spawning the phrase “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Even so, 23 years after this magical contraption made its debut, U.S. Food Administrator Claude Wickard banned the sale of pre-sliced bread. Citing wartime shortages, Wickard thought it required too much packaging. The ban didn’t last long, though: the ban was lifted three months later. Officially, this had to with Wickard overestimating the savings such a ban would produce, but in reality it likely had much to do with harsh public outcry.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Now the sandwich has its official name and its pre-sliced bread. It also has some pretty odd — if not entirely unappetizing — incarnations:
Why was sliced bread banned in the US in 1943?
Sliced bread was banned in the US as of January 8, 1943, due to World War II rationing.
There was also a slight rise in the price of flour, as more wheat was used for sliced bread.
This was because sliced bread became stale more quickly than unsliced, according to the then Secretary of State for Agriculture.
The American government was also trying to preserve waxed paper, which was used to wrap the bread, and free up steel, used for making the slicing machines.
However, the savings did not match the expectations, and there was a strong resistance to the ban - so it only ended up lasting for two months.
Early Cultures & Forms of Bread
Archaeological evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer societies around 22,000 years ago already had the means to turn grains into flour and bake rudimentary types of bread. Findings from Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and the Fertile Crescent show that bread was an essential part of everyday life thousands of ago.
However, bread production has come a long way since then.
Early History of Bread
Farmers began growing and cultivating crops about 12 thousand years ago. But despite the number, the history of breadmaking goes to at least 10 thousand years before humans even thought about growing wheat and barley in their farms.
In one archaeological excavation, the scientists studying in Ohalo II—an old hunter-gatherer settlement in Israel—opened a new window into the history of bread.
In this 22,000-year-old site, the researchers found remnants of barley starch and a circle of chipped embers – signs of an open alternative to ovens and a tool for baking bread. This significant evidence indicates that making bread was already a well-established activity before humans became largely agricultural.
Natufian Hunter-Gathering Culture
Another example that signifies the early emergence of bread relates to the archaeobotanical investigations in Shubayqa 1—an ancient foraging site in North-Eastern Jordan, dating back to the time of Natufian culture—9,500 to 12,000 BCE.
Archaeologists discovered two big fireplaces in an old structure – one of which contained different kinds of flours. They cataloged 24 bread-like types of remains. They found mainly crucifers, legumes, barley, oat, and einkorn wheat.
By examining flour-like particles and grinding stone tools in the ancient village, scientists learned that those residents were adept at sieving grains, making flour – and turning it into high-quality bread. Therefore, just as in Ohalo II, breadmaking was probably a routine activity for the Natufian people.
Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent
Scientists measured the height, width, and length of the pieces of bread they found in Shubayqa 1 to visualize bread in ancient times.
You've probably heard this story: early forms of bread were surprisingly similar to the unleavened flatbreads that were also cooked in old Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and by the Indus civilization.
Flatbreads are relatively thin, featuring at least 1-millimeter thickness. However, depending on the baking method and ingredients, they can be as thick as a few centimeters – but all-in-all, they are nothing compared to the loaves of bread on the shelves today.
Flatbreads were also popular among the Fertile Crescent populace—a crescent-shaped region in the Middle East that spans from modern-day Egypt to the western fringes of Turkey and Iran.
As the first farmlands of the world, whose residents began cultivating wheat and barley around 8500 BC, the hunter-gatherers of the Fertile Crescent were most likely among the first to make bread in a permanent place.
Ancient Baking Styles and Ovens
As you saw, 22,000 years ago, our ancestors were making ancient flatbread over open flames. But it's not like breadmakers and advanced ovens came overnight – cooking and baking methods also evolved.
One basic baking method in bread's history was to bury the bread under a layer of sand, embers, and ash – "ash-baked bread." (Similar to taguella.)
Of course, woodfire and vertical ovens were also popular – and closer to how bread is made today. Vertical ovens are cylindrical and typically made of clay, and may be portable or fixed in location.
The vertical clay oven originated in the Syrian–Mesopotamian area, and there's evidence that people throughout the Middle East and North Africa used these ovens extensively. Archeologists have found remains of these ovens from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Egypt.
In Arabic, the vertical oven is often called a "tanur" or "tanour." It originated from the Akkadian word "tinuru." Multiple variants of the word exist in different languages from Turkish (tandir) to Persian (tanur), Georgian (tone), and even Hindi (tandur).
A Tannour Oven in Egypt's Valley of the Kings (CC-by-SA 2.0 Dennis Jarvis)
Bread was a staple food for Egyptians – for everyone from the pharaoh to the peasants. Egyptians even used special types of thick, non-porous bread as containers for other dishes. This bread was easier to bake than leavened flatbreads since it didn't need a vertical oven.
Around 450 BC, Egyptians figured out that they could make these portable meals using whatever grain was most abundant. This discovery later led to an uptake in agricultural activities, larger villages and settlements – and consequently, the creation of cities worldwide.
And the Egyptians were more advanced than you'd think. In the Dynastic Period, Egyptians could remove wheat chaff without turning roasting or other special mechanisms. But large-scale production was hard, and only the rich had access to free-thrashed bread wheat. Others had to use emmer wheat.
Egyptians probably played a large role in the widespread use and advancement of bread. They had excellent trade relationships with the Greeks and exported bread wheat – and their bread baking knowledge – to Europe. Also, historians know yeast-fermented breadmaking was mastered in Egypt – early leavened bread. So Egypt possibly gave us some early examples of sourdough – and beer (although it's true: the Sumerians first created some inferior brews!).
Bread Becomes a Commodity: The Roman Empire
Roman bakers took the concept and applied it on a wide scale. A typical Roman bakery could produce enough bread for 2,000 people daily. The ovens were massive: 20 feet in diameter, wood-fired, lined with brick and tile, and fitted with a rotating metal grate on which the loaves were baked.
The Romans also introduced tremendous specialization, using varieties of flours to produce a wide range of products: light breads for the upper classes, darker breads for the lower classes, specific breads for soldiers, sailors, and so on.
Later, in medieval Europe, bread continued to be the basis of the diet, and as in Rome, lighter breads were what the upper classes consumed, while darker breads were what regular people ate. Medieval people also used thick bread rounds as plates, called trenchers, with meat and sauce heaped on top.