Why is sliced bread our reference for things that are new and incredible? The answer involves wrapped bread, banned bread, and Wonder Bread.
“It’s the best thing since sliced bread!” you might proclaim about fast wi-fi, a meal-delivery service, or a new TV show. This phrase is used to describe a remarkable, revolutionary innovation. The Kansas City Star noted that “the phrase is the ultimate depiction of innovative achievement and American know-how.” When it comes to sliced bread itself, it’s an innovation that we now take for granted but once seemed a marvel of modern mechanization.
Rohwedder’s Bread Slicing Machine
The earliest bread-slicing machines appeared in America in the 1860s and used parallel blades to slice bread. However, they sat on shelves, mostly unused and unnoticed for decades. In the meantime, other machinery was developed that could produce loaves of bread of uniform shape and size.
A jeweler from Iowa named Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented the first electric bread-slicing machine that worked in tandem with modern production methods. He built a prototype that was, sadly, destroyed in a fire in 1912. Rohwedder finished the machine in 1917, but many companies refused to buy it because they were concerned that consumers wouldn’t be interested in pre-sliced bread—weren’t people just fine cutting it themselves? Additionally, they worried that the bread would crumble and grow stale too quickly if it were sliced. This problem was solved by wrapping the bread in wax paper immediately after it was sliced.
The bread-slicing machine was finally put into service in 1928 by the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri. The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune ran a full-page ad on July 6, 1928, to spread the word about the innovative new product:
The ad noted that this gave Chillicothe Baking Company “the distinction of being the first bakers in the world to sell sliced bread to the public.”
And notice that the greatest thing before sliced bread was wrapped bread! Bread had been mass-produced, wrapped in wax paper, and sold to grocery stores since about the 1820s—after then, families no longer had to make several loaves of homemade bread every week. The combination of sliced and wrapped bread would prove to be an even more successful innovation for the bread industry.
The Wonder of Sliced Bread
Pre-sliced bread quickly gained momentum, and within two years of its introduction, 90% of the bread sold in stores was sliced. It was convenient and consistent, and customers loved it. Other inventions such as the toaster reinforced and adapted to the popularity of uniformly sliced bread.
In addition, bread consumption increased because it was so much easier to eat more bread—the knife no longer stood as a barrier between an American and a slice of bread with jam. In fact, the consumption of butter, jam, and other spreads increased as well as people ate more slices of bread, more frequently. Sliced bread eased the burden on mothers who formerly had to slice whole loaf of bread in the morning to make toast for breakfast and sandwiches to pack for lunch for a growing family.
Other bread companies caught the wave of sliced bread and experimented with similar campaigns and further innovations. Some sold extra thick or extra thin slices of bread (in fact, loaves of bread are still sold according to slice thickness in the United Kingdom). In 1933, one bakery offered thick and thin slices in the same loaf and marketed it as “the first improvement since sliced bread.” Rohwedder also sold his patent for the slicing machine in 1930, and other bakeries and inventors improved upon the model.
Wonder Bread followed Chillicothe’s lead with marketing campaigns advertising “a truly wonderful bread,” constantly talking up its uniform, snowy white loaves that were now pre-sliced thanks to the company’s own slicing machines. Whereas Chillicothe was a smaller-scale bakery, Wonder Bread produced the first commercially manufactured sliced bread in America and used delivery trucks to ship bread around the nation. By the 1930s, Wonder Bread had built its brand upon its uniform, pre-sliced loaves, which became an icon of the enormous manufacturing capacity of United States.
Now for a horror story. In 1943, during the height of World War II, the U.S. government issued a ban on sliced bread due to wartime shortages and a need to focus on manufacturing weaponry. Sliced bread required more wrapping materials, and there had been a 10 percent rise in the price of flour, so the ban was supposed to reduce waste and save money. Banned bread! What an outrage for carbohydrate-loving consumers and mothers who were already harried for time! The ban was lifted two months later due to widespread outcry. It seems that sliced bread was too much a fact of American life at that point to be taken away. Besides, the ban also had but a small effect on savings, and many bakeries were hard-pressed to comply.
Mechanization vs. Back to Nature
One of the most significant effects of the industrial revolution was the mechanization of everyday life. The ease and convenience of pre-sliced bread is a seemingly small time-saver that that yields a great return. Many rushed mornings have been spared from further chaos by a loaf of bread ready for the toaster or the lunchbox.
More recently, dissatisfaction with highly processed foods and modern manufacturing methods has caused some people to return to making more food at home. Whether due to health reasons, countercultural currents, or environmental concerns, more Americans are turning to nonuniform, homemade, slice-by-yourself bread—just like great-grandma used to make.
So, what is the best thing since sliced bread? Perhaps it’s a loaf of homemade whole wheat bread, as a foil to mass consumerism—or perhaps it’s a new smartphone, a better mousetrap, or gluten-free cinnamon raisin bread.
Blitz, Matthew. “The Origin of Bread and the Phrase ‘The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread.’” Mary 5, 2014. Today I Found Out. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/05/origin-phrase-best-thing-since-sliced-bread-2/.
Boettcher, Kaitlyn. “A Brief History of Sliced Bread.” July 7, 2013. MentalFloss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/49168/brief-history-sliced-bread.
Chillicothe Constitution Tribune. July 6, 1928, p. 8.
Lohman, Sarah. “A Brief History of Bread.” December 18, 2012; updated October 15, 2019. History.com. https://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-bread.
Molella, Art. “How the Phrase ‘The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread’ Originated.” February 8, 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/02/how-the-phrase-the-best-thing-since-sliced-bread-originated/252674/.
“Sliced bread.” Wikipedia. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sliced_bread.
“The Toast of the Whole Town (Advertisement).” Evansville Press, December 22, 1933, p. 15.
Wenske, Paul. “History of Sliced Bread Little Known on 75th Anniversary.” July 29, 2003. Archived from the original on August 12, 2003. https://web.archive.org/web/20030812080649/http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascitystar/6405440.htm.