Bread is one of the world’s oldest prepared foods. There is evidence that humans were whipping up a crude form of bread some 30,000 years ago. Even today, there is nothing like the smell of fresh baked bread — it is inarguably the most important ingredient of any sandwich. And who can resist yummy, crispy toast in the morning? Pre-sliced loaves hit the market in 1928 and were heralded as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” So exactly who was the mastermind behind this brilliant idea?
Otto Rohwedder was an Iowa-born, Missouri-based jeweler. Rohwedder’s quest to make sliced bread a reality was not without its challenges. A 1917 fire destroyed his prototype and blueprints. He also faced skepticism from bakers who thought factory-sliced loaves would quickly go stale or fall apart. In 1927, Rohwedder successfully designed a machine that not only sliced the bread but wrapped it. He applied for patents to protect his invention and sold the first machine to a friend and baker Frank Bench, who installed it at the Chillicothe Baking Company, in Chillicothe, Missouri, in 1928.
The first loaf of sliced bread was sold commercially on July 7, 1928. Gustav Papendick, a baker in St. Louis, Missouri, bought Rohwedder's second machine and found he could improve on it. He developed a better way to have the machine wrap and keep bread fresh. Sales of the machine to other bakeries increased and sliced bread became available across the country.
By 1930, major baking companies began selling sliced bread when they saw how the loaves were adored by consumers. By 1932, the availability of standardized slices had also boosted sales of automatic, pop-up toasters. In 1933, American bakeries for the first time produced more sliced than unsliced bread loaves. That same year, Rohwedder sold his patent rights to the Micro-Westco Co. of Bettendorf, Iowa, and joined the company. He became vice-president and sales manager of the Rohwedder Bakery Machine Division. America was absolutely in love with this new innovation!
Then it all came to a screeching halt. On January 18, 1943, Claude R. Wickard, the Secretary of Agriculture and head of the War Foods Administration, came up with the idea to ban pre-sliced bread in America, and he pushed it through the same year. The ban was not clearly explained; it is thought to have been a wartime conservation measure regarding resources, probably referring to wax paper, steel, or wheat. It might also have been an answer to the problems caused by increased price of bread thanks to the Office of Price Administration’s authorization of a 10 percent rise in the flour price.
Because sliced bread required much thicker wax paper than regular loaves, it went stale very quickly. In fact, this was stated as the official reason for the ban, even though there wasn’t any lack of wax paper at the time. Most bread-making companies had wax-paper supplies that lasted for several months.
Also, banning sliced bread was expected to decrease bread consumption, which would reduce the demand for flour and, finally, decrease the prices of those products, while at the same time increase stockpiles of wheat. Wickard believed that without its heavy wrapping of wax-paper, bread would dry out more quickly and housewives would throw away the stale slices. Thus, wasting wheat. His ultimate goal was to preserve the nation’s wheat stockpile during WWII. However, during this time the U.S. had enjoyed a great crop with more than one billion bushels of wheat — enough to last around two years even if there wasn’t any new wheat harvested during that period.
Since wheat conservation did not appear to make sense, another rationale was suggested. The automated slicing of bread required specialized machines that not only used metal but needed repairs. It was speculated that the ban aimed to conserve steel. The conservation of steel and other metals during the war was indeed important. In fact, many companies which manufactured metal goods would stop their normal production and re-tool to manufacture materials for the military, including ammo and weapons. Still, repairing a bread-slicing machine now and again could not be expected to constitute any detriment to the war effort.
Not surprisingly, the masses were quite disappointed when they learned about the ban. Its popularity in U.S. households was so widespread that it even led to the expression: “the best thing since sliced bread.”
When questioned about his reasons for the ban, Wickard stated in a New York Times article, “The ready-sliced loaf must have a heavier wrapping than an unsliced one if it is not to dry out. This would require the paper to be waxed. Since America is focused on defeating the Nazis and the Japanese, the country has better things to do than wrap sliced bread!”
In reality, the ban on sliced bread had probably not been given any real thought or analysis, and it did not last long. The outcry over the lack of sliced bread, a product Americans could just no longer live without, caused a swift reversal. On March 8, 1943, just shy of three months after the order, the ban was lifted
Today, we take for granted how our fresh loaves are pre-sliced and ready to concoct whatever sandwich masterpiece we have in mind. So the next time you reach for your delicious Sunbeam Bread, appreciate it’s wholesome goodness in every soft slice!
Learn more about the ban at https://youtu.be/i7Kc6Sfla3I