What's So Great About Sliced Bread?
C'mon, you know you've said it: “It's the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Of course, since practically nobody knows what unsliced bread is anymore, that bit of hyperbole has lost some of its punch over the years. Still, pretty much everybody knows that the classic idiomatic phrase refers to something extraordinary – especially a newer discovery – that will likely be a significant improvement. “But what,” you may ask, “is so great about sliced bread?”
Bread has been around for a long, long time. There's archaeological evidence that a rudimentary form of flatbread was known in Europe thirty-thousand years ago. Most of the breads we recognize in Western culture today are the leavened variety that come out of ovens as loaves. Some loaves are round, others are elongated, some are oval shaped, and some, like what we commonly call “sandwich bread,” are kind of squarish. The round, elongated, or oval loaves can be broken apart for consumption or even eaten “as is,” but the traditional “sandwich loaf” pretty much has to be sliced in order to be of any use. And that can be a problem.
People who live in the “modern age” where all you have to do to make a sandwich is open a plastic bag and take out a couple of perfectly machine-sliced pieces of bread don't really have an appreciation for what it takes to slice bread. My grandmother had to do it. And I do it myself. It takes a good bread knife and a keen eye to achieve uniformity. You don't want slices that are too thick or too thin. Or a thick slice paired with a thin slice. You particularly don't want slices that start out thick at the top and wind up thin at the bottom or vice-versa. There's also a talent to slicing up a loaf of bread – especially fresh bread – without crushing it as you cut. Slicing bread can be a time-consuming, frustrating chore.
Enter a guy named Otto F. Rohwedder, an inventor from Iowa. Over the course of about a decade of trial and error, he came up with a concept for “A Machine For Slicing An Entire Loaf Of Bread At A Single Operation,” an idea he patented on November 26, 1928. But the initial reaction among commercial bread bakers was not exactly what Rohwedder no doubt hoped it would be. In fact, the contraption was something of a hard sell at first.
To begin with, bakers were unconvinced that consumers wanted pre-sliced bread. Up to that point, I guess, nobody had been beating down the bakery doors asking for such a commodity. Then there were concerns about freshness. An unsliced loaf of bread stays fresher longer. Once you cut into it, it begins to go stale fairly quickly. To address these concerns, the inventor originally conceptualized the use of pins to hold the sliced loaf together. Since unpinning individual slices of bread wasn't an idea that appealed to anybody, Rohwedder approached the issue from a different angle: he amended the way the sliced bread would be packaged. There were no convenient plastic bags with little twist ties in those days. Instead, Rohwedder suggested wrapping each freshly-sliced loaf in thick wax paper. And so it was done. Eventually, cellophane took the place of wax paper before ultimately giving way to plastic. Come to think of it, I can actually remember wax paper-wrapped bread covered in cellophane packaging. Jeez, I'm old.
Anyway, the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, decided to give Rohwedder’s unconventional device a shot. They installed his machine and began to sell “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread” on July 7, 1928. The local newspaper carried both a front page news story and a full back page advertisement for the new-fangled gimmick in an effort to convince people that sliced bread really was a great thing. Selling points included statements like, “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 article goes on to prophetically enthuse, “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.”
Needless to say, sliced bread quickly became the greatest thing since......well, you get the idea. By 1930, the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis had built its own slicing machines and was sending its soon-to-be-iconic product, Wonder Bread, pre-sliced and wrapped in wax paper packaging festooned with red, yellow, and blue balloons, to retailers nationwide.
And now there is legislation pending in Jefferson City asking Missouri lawmakers to officially designate July 7 as “Missouri Sliced Bread Day.” After all, Chillicothe, a town of about 9,500 folks, goes all out to promote its claim to fame as “The Home of Sliced Bread.” There's a recently erected historical marker in front of the red brick building at 100 Elm Street that formerly housed the Chillicothe Baking Company and there's an annual Sliced Bread Jam Bluegrass Music Festival, too. Supporters of the bill recognize Chillicothe's “piece of very positive history” and believe such a celebration would stimulate the local economy by bringing more tourists to northern Missouri. According to the Chillicothe News, if the proposed holiday becomes a reality, local residents are encouraged to engage in “appropriate activities and events” to celebrate Otto Rohwedder’s game changing creation.
I suppose it's a good thing I don't live anywhere near Chillicothe because I would have a hard time engaging in any appropriate activities. Personally, I don't eat sliced bread. Not since I started baking my own bread many, many years ago. Now, I'd be lying like a politician if I said sliced bread had never passed my lips. Are you kidding? I grew up in the '50s and '60s when moms were assured that the aforementioned Wonder Bread “helps build strong bodies twelve ways.” I think I got shortchanged on about eleven of those ways, but that's neither here nor there. The point is I grew up consuming my fair share of the soft, gummy commodity we're talking about celebrating. But no more. I can count on one hand the number of times I've had to make an emergency purchase of store-bought sliced bread in the last several years. Of course, back in Rohwedder's day, bread was still bread; made from flour, water, salt, and a little yeast. Concerns about bread going stale were legitimate in those days because real bread really would spoil in a fairly short amount of time. Unlike today's preservative and additive laden bread-like substances that can sit out on the counter for weeks at a time and still maintain what passes for “freshness.” In other words, it's still nice and soft and gummy. But I still wish Chillicothe luck in their pursuit of sliced bread fame. It's not their fault, or Otto Rohwedder's, either, that the baking industry would ultimately turn a basic, natural dietary staple into a form of chemically enhanced Frankenbread.
Oh, and in case you ever find yourself thinking, “I wonder what was the greatest thing before sliced bread?”, I may have an answer. Apparently that would be wrapped bread since early advertising for sliced bread touted it as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” Although I imagine if you were to start saying, “That's the greatest thing since wrapped bread,” people would just give you funny looks. And who knows? Maybe someday I'll make a pilgrimage to Chillicothe just so I can have a slice of bread and stimulate the local economy. I've done stranger things.