Everyone has probably uttered the phrase “the next best thing since sliced bread” at least once in their lives. But how did this phrase come to be? And was sliced bread really all that?
The baking of bread has always been one of the most important human endeavors. Bread technology can be traded to the Neolithic era. In 1999, two 5,000 year old scarred pieces of bread were discovered in Britain, basically amounting to humanity’s first pieces of burnt toast. When hunting and gathering started to be balanced by farming, the cultivation of grain was the next big step in the evolution of food. The importance of bread to human endeavors cannot be overstated, despite the modern proclivity to declare bread as evil and unhealthy.
Technology aimed at improving bread-making has always been a preoccupation of inventors. Machines to mechanize flour bleaching, dough-kneading, continuous baking and eventually slicing of bread were developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The first machine designed to slice bread was created in the mid 19th century. The machine had parallel blades, but it was useless since there was still no way to make loaves uniform in shape and consistency.
Everything changed in 1928, thanks to an Iowan named Otto Frederick Rohwedder. Rohwedder’s invention was immediately put to use by the Chillicothe (Missouri) Baking Company, which heralded its pre-sliced bread. The machine caught-on quickly, and spurred many new inventions, totally changing the world of bread-making by the mid-1930s. The success of sliced bread was reinforced by things like standardized toasters which were created to toast a specific size slice of bread. The phrase “the best thing since sliced bread” became part of American lexicon at that time, as many new manufacturers sought to hype its new products. It is believed that Wonder Bread, which was the first company to sell pre-sliced and pre-wrapped loaves of bread, actually used the slogan.
Rohwedder’s tale is a typical story of a man with a dream. He began his career as a jeweler, but sold his stores to fund his bread slicing idea. He originally created the bread slicer in 1912, but unfortunately his blueprints and plans for the machine were destroyed in a fire in 1917. Eventually Rohwedder raised enough money to re-build the bread slicer prototype, which originally drew little interest from bakers, who believed consumers would not like the shorter shelf life of pre-sliced bread. Rohwedder at one point experimented with the use of pins to hold the bread together after it was sliced, but decided instead to recommend the bread be wrapped in wax paper to promote freshness.
But was it really that great?
Although not everyone was convinced the product was that essential, the Chillicothe Bread Company thought it could revolutionize kitchen convenience. “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 company said in 1928.
Sliced bread became a phenomenon in little more than two years. It also ushered in an era of new mechanization aimed at products for the home. Sliced bread was deemed so important that consumers nearly rioted when the government shut down sliced bread machines in the midst of WWII. Although the government needed materials used in the bread baking and manufacturing process, consumers complained bitterly about the problem of inconvenient bread. The ban on sliced bread ended after two years, in 1943.
Although sliced bread doesn’t seem that revolutionary to people in the 21st century, it certainly was a clever invention that changed the way women (and men) worked around the home. Perhaps today we would amend the phrase to say “the best thing since Steve Jobs.”