07 July 2008

The Greatest Thing Since Otto Rohwedder

This month’s blog article is not the greatest thing since sliced bread. Rather, it is about sliced bread itself and the man who “invented” it.

Just think about how convenient pre-sliced bread actually is. To make a sandwich for lunch or toast for breakfast – or even grilled cheese for a quick, light dinner – all you need to do is open a bag and remove two pre-cut slices. There’s no need to remove the whole loaf and saw into it, resulting in slices of uneven thickness and a squished loaf.

Imagine if the United States Government banned sliced bread. That’s just what happened on January 18, 1943. Food Administrator Claude R. Wickard banned sliced bread as a wartime conservation measure because “‘…the ready-sliced loaf must have a heavier wrapping than an un-sliced one if it is not to dry out.’” A letter of protest appeared in the January 26, 1943 issue of 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. Afterwards I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry!”

In the same issue of the Times, New York Area Supervisor of the Food Distribution Administration John F. Conaboy announced that the sliced bread ban would continue. It was not until March 8, 1943 that the ban was finally lifted. The headline “Sliced Bread Put Back on Sale; Housewives’ Thumbs Safe Again; Wickard Rescinds Ban of Jan. 18…” appeared in the New York Times the following day.

How did this reliance on bakery sliced bread come about? The age-old expression that something is the “greatest thing since sliced bread” needs a reference point in time. How long ago did sliced bread come about? One might guess with the invention of the knife but one would be wrong. Unlike the invention of the wheel we not only know when sliced bread was invented but by whom.

Bakery sliced bread came about on July 7, 1928 thanks to Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa. According to Modern Mechanics and Inventions, “one of the newest conveniences for the housewife and dining place operators, and one of the most far reaching, is the…automatic bread slicer invented by O.F. Rohwedder…”

Otto Rohwedder knew the problems faced by housewives when they tried to slice bakery bread with a thick crust and soft interior crumb. In a word, it smushed. Not to mention many thumbs were cut, as alluded to in the aforementioned New York Times article. As early as 1912 he began to develop an automated bread slicer. His research included interviewing over 30,000 housewives “for the purpose of determining a thickness of slice which would be most nearly universal in acceptance”.

Bakeries, however, were not too keen on the idea initially, claiming that the sliced bread would go stale too quickly. By 1928, however, he had developed a machine that would not only slice the bread but wrap it as well.

The wrapping of the loaf took care of the staleness issue. But there was still the problem of a smushed loaf. The Modern Mechanics article stated that, “it was impossible to satisfactorily slice bread, a slice at a time…Simultaneously cutting all the slices of a loaf in a single operation” was the answer. It went on to describe Rohwedder’s machine:

“Two banks of thin sharp steel blades are utilized…The cutting edges are all I nthe same plane and alternated so that while one blade moves upward its immediate neighbor moves downward…As the blades pass through the soft bread, the loaf closes immediately behind the blades and keeps the air out. These perfect surfaces fit snugly against each other and adhere surprisingly, thus retaining the freshness of the loaf.”

The bakers who initially scoffed at Rohwedder’s idea were now hailing it as “the greatest single advance in baker procedure in almost a quarter of a century.”

Rohwedder’s invention impacted more than just the loaf itself. Think about the way you store and open a loaf of bread you buy in the grocery store today. This was not done before July 7, 1928! Thanks to Rohwedder, “instead of removing the entire wrapper at the time of serving the bread, the wrapper is opened at one end and folded back. This discloses a shallow paper carton in which the loaf rests in a succession of closely adjacent slices. These slices are neat and exact. Only by mechanical means could this precision be obtained.”

The first bakery to use Rohwedder’s bread slicer was the M.F. Bench’s Chillicothe Baking Company on July 7, 1928, Rohwedder’s 48th birthday. Located at 100 Elm Street in Chillicothe, Missouri, the bakery sold “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread”.

According to his biography on http://www.findagrave.com/, Rohwedder sold his invention to the Micro-Westco Co. of Bettendorf, Iowa, and he became vice-president and sales manager of the Rohwedder Bakery Machine Division of Micro-Westco.
Otto Rohwedder retired to Albion, Michigan in 1951. He died on November 8, 1960 at the age of 80.


100 Hour Board. Brigham Young University. http://theboard.byu.edu/index.php?area=viewall&id=22757, as of July 7, 2008

Find A Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=8085036, as of July 7, 2008.

Modern Mechanics and Inventions. November 1929. Pages 100-101.

New York Times. March 9, 1943. “Sliced Bread Put Back on Sale…” http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA061FFF3C59147B93CBA91788D85F478485F9&scp=1&sq=sliced+bread&st=p, as of July 7, 2008.

Wikipedia. Sliced Bread. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sliced_bread, as of July 7, 2008.