Slice of Bread

The story of the innovation that became the reference for all innovations to follow.

The best thing since sliced bread. Now, how many times have we heard or said that. And how many of us have paused and wondered why we say that. Not me. Till someone super bright suggested ‘slice of bread’ as the name for this newsletter I was planning to start on innovation and growth. I loved the name and realised that the least one should do is find out how this slicing business started.

Being on the fun side of fifty, I remember whole loaves at home even as late as the mid 70s. We had this thin, long knife which was used expertly by my Mom to carve out neat slices. But it took her quite a bit of concentration and effort. We, the three kids, were explicitly not allowed to touch this ‘dangerous’ implement which of course we did and completely destroyed a few loaves and paid the price. It was not easy, slicing bread. Especially, because they were so soft. Why were they so soft? I remember pressing the bread packet at the local kirana shop to make sure it was ‘fresh’. The Smithsonian magazine explains:

To understand sliced bread, one must first understand the dramatic shift in bread making habits in America. In 1890, about 90 percent of bread was baked at home, but by 1930, factories usurped the home baker.  But factory breads were also incredibly soft. Buying pre-wrapped bread, consumers were forced to evaluate a product under sensory deprivation—it’s next to impossible to effectively see, touch and smell bread through a wrapper. “Softness,” Borrow-Strain writes, “had become customers’ proxy for freshness, and savvy bakery scientists turned their minds to engineering even more squeezable loaves. As a result of the drive toward softer bread, industry observers noted that modern loaves had become almost impossible to slice neatly at home.

To the rescue arrived Otto Rohwedder, an American inventor from Iowa. Rohwedder constructed the first loaf-at-a-time bread-slicing machine for commercial use and it was the Chillicothe Baking Company, in Chillicothe, Missouri, that gave Rohwedder’s invention a chance. They installed the machine and began to sell “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread” on July 7, 1928. And they announced it with a full page ad the day before:

Inventing the machine was a big step but there was this big fear of sliced bread going stale. A New York Times Magazine article explains how Rohwedder further innovated to overcome that obstacle to adoption of his machine:

In 1928, a full-page newspaper ad announced the first presliced loaf of bread. It included instructions: 1) “Open wrapper at one end”; 2) “Pull out pin”; 3) “Remove as many slices as desired.” At the time, as everyone knew, cut bread quickly went stale. Anticipating consumers’ fears, Otto Rohwedder, a Missouri-based inventor, inserted a U-shaped pin at both ends of his presliced loaf to hold the bread together inside the resealable bag, creating an illusion of wholeness that signified freshness.

Sliced bread spread across the States, thanks primarily to Wonder Bread, who took it national. This ad for sliced Wonder Bread appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel, March 9, 1943. It heralded the end of one of the most unusual aspects of wartime economic controls, namely, the ban on sliced bread.

As this article explains:

On January 18, 1943, the War Foods Administration handed down its edict that, as a wartime measure, the sale of sliced bread would be banned. Thereafter, only unsliced loaves would be for sale, and the hapless housewife would need to cut it herself. As the Wonder Bread ad above notes, one effect was that children couldn’t get a slice of bread by themselves.

The exact rationale for the ban was never made entirely clear, but the ostensible reason was that it would save on waxed paper, since the unsliced loaf would stay fresh longer by itself, and wouldn’t need to be wrapped as well. But there was no shortage of wax paper, and most bakeries had sufficient stocks on hand.

As might be epxected, this edict didn’t go over well with the general public. Some bakeries simply ignored the ban and condtinued to slice the bread for customers on request. One housewife wrote the following letter to the editor of the New York Times:

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. Afterward I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry!

The ban was quickly lifted, sliced bread went back on sale in March, and as the Wonder Bread ad notes, children could once again get a slice of bread all by themselves.

And why did this innovation evoke such strong emotions. Aaron Bobrow-Strain, author of a social history, “White Bread” tells the New York Times:

In the early 20th century, Americans ate about one-third of their calories in the form of bread; this small innovation touched everyone. “The sliced loaf,” he says, “becomes a kind of small, edible promise of a better world.”

Think about that when you raise the next toast.

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