ABOUT-WORDS-L ArchivesArchiver > ABOUT-WORDS > 2004-01 > 1074732264
From: Lee Quinn <>
Subject: [ABOUT WORDS] Sliced Bread
Date: Wed, 21 Jan 2004 19:46:51 -0500
At 06:35 PM 1/21/04 -0500, hens <> wrote:
What was sliced bread the greatest thing since?
History of sliced bread little known on 75th anniversary
By PAUL WENSKE, The Kansas City Star
Everyone has heard "it's the greatest thing since sliced bread," used to
hype everything from toasters to cell phones. Indeed, the phrase is the
ultimate depiction of innovative achievement and American know-how.
Yet few know when and where this icon of cultural convenience made
its debut in the American marketplace.
But thanks to a curious newspaper editor, the northwest Missouri town of
Chillicothe [pronounced CHILL-a- cothee]can claim the distinction of being
the first place in the world where sliced bread was sold to the public 75
years ago this month.
Kathy Stortz Ripley, editor of the Constitution-Tribune, was
incredulous when she came upon a news story dated July 7, 1928, announcing
that the Chillicothe Baking Co. was now marketing wrapped loaves of sliced
bread to local grocery stores.
"I read the story and thought, `This is incredible,' " said
Ripley, who was researching Chillicothe's history for a book. "I couldn't
believe something this big I hadn't heard of before." An accompanying ad
trumpeted: "Announcing: The Greatest Forward Step in the Baking Industry
Since Bread was Wrapped Sliced Kleen Maid Bread."
But the boast is not without controversy. Battle Creek, Mich., the
nation's cereal capital, also claims to be the home of sliced bread. But
that claim, so far, seems half-baked. When pressed this month, Battle
Creek's historians were unable to produce proof.
Ripley took her find to Livingston County Library Director Karen
Hicklin, who identified the home of the defunct Chillicothe Bakery as a
brick building now housing an electronics supply shop. Sadly, the bread
slicer was junked years ago.
Hicklin eventually found old-timers who described how the bulky
machine, invented by itinerant Iowa jeweler Otto Rohwedder, raised and
lowered its steel blades and stuffed the sliced loaves into wax-paper wrappers.
"I thought, `How in the world could anything like this be
forgotten?' " Hicklin said. How indeed. Although credited with the
invention, Otto Rohwedder is all but lost to history. Even the
Smithsonian's American History Museum lacks information on the origins of
And yet, few inventions have so monumentally capitalized on the
consumer's love of convenience. Sliced bread saved homemakers hours of
drudgery. It put toasters in every home. And it resulted in millions of
peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
"What could be easier than to reach into a wrapped loaf of bread
and pull out a slice?" said Mark Dirkes, a spokesman for Interstate
Bakeries Corp. in Kansas City, which now owns Wonder Bread.
The popularity of sliced bread eventually reduced Rohwedder to a footnote.
By 1930, Rohwedder had sold his patent. Inventors and bakers improved upon
his clunky machine.
Wonder Bread, which already wrapped its loaves, built its own
machines and used delivery trucks to market sliced bread across the nation.
In fact, said Dirkes, "Sliced bread is the first innovation Wonder Bread
used to build its national brand." The bright, balloon-imprinted wrappers
of Wonder-Cut Bread advertised "Sliced" in big letters. Ad campaigns
featured smiling families packing sandwiches for picnics.
Soon every new innovation of convenience was being touted as the
"greatest thing since sliced bread." But the true story begins in
Chillicothe at M.F. Bench's Chillicothe Baking Co.
Bob Staton, now in his 80s, remembers the machine, about 10-feet
long with a "bunch of blades that swung up and swung down" making slices
less than an inch wide.
Initially, 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. Rohwedder labored over his
invention more than 13 years before any bakers offered to give it a shot.
Several references say Rohwedder first took his machine to Battle
Creek. The Battle Creek Visitor and Convention Bureau on its Web site brags
that Rohwedder "began making and selling pre-cut loaves of bread" at a
Battle Creek bakery. But a spokeswoman for the Battle Creek bureau conceded
its source was a short reference found on the Internet.
George Livingston, a history researcher for the Willard Library in
Battle Creek, said, "I've looked into it and I don't find any indication of
this man's (Rohwedder) presence on the local scene." The Battle Creek
historical museum found a reference to a Battle Creek Bread Wrapping
Machine Co. But it's dated 1930, which is two years after the Chillicothe
Baking Co. sliced bread. That makes Chillicothe's claim, at least for now,
The Constitution-Tribune's July 7, 1928, news story managed to
capture the significance of sliced bread. "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."
Sometime during the Great Depression, Chillicothe baker M.F. Bench
got out of the business and became Chillicothe's superintendent of streets.
In 1943, Bench was quoted saying he'd always known the bread slicer would
"be outstanding among improvements of that decade."
In January 1943, at the height of World War II, the government
ordered bakeries to stop slicing bread. The country needed airplanes more
than it needed bread-slicing blades. The ban did not go over well. It was
lifted three months later.
A story March 9, 1943, in the Constitution-Tribune announced the
lifting of the ban under a headline that read: "Mrs. Housewife Can Relieve
Herself of Troublesome Task."
The story noted that sliced bread was first sold commercially in Chillicothe.
So why hasn't Chillicothe capitalized on its fame?
One reason is that the memory faded in the decades after the
Chillicothe Baking Co. closed. A beer bottler bought the bakery building
and dumped what he thought was a pile of junk in 1960. Only later did he
learn it was Rohwedder's bread slicer.
Local tourism officials agree it's a great story. But they don't
have the bread slicer, so there's nothing for tourists to look at. Still,
Ripley, the editor, would like to see something done. After all, other
Missouri towns crow about something: Hannibal claims Mark Twain, Marceline
claims Walt Disney, Laclede claims John J. Pershing and St. Joseph claims
the Pony Express.
"It's hard to believe sliced bread was just invented in 1928 and
that it was invented here," she said.