Lots of things are declared “the greatest thing since sliced bread,” but have you ever wondered, just what timeline we are talking here? Sliced bread is one of those inventions that seems like it should have always been part of our diets, and the accompanying phrase, forever part of our vernacular. But it’s much more recent than you would expect. So when was this ubiquitous food staple first invented?
Bread is one of the world’s most commonly prepared foods — it’s also one of the oldest. There is evidence of humans making crude variations of the stuff as far back as the Neolithic era.
Sliced bread, however? That’s a different story.
For perspective, Queen Elizabeth II, Tony Bennett, and Betty White are all older than sliced bread.
The first automatically sliced commercial loaves of bread didn’t hit production until July 6, 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri. It was all made possible thanks to a machine invented by jeweler and trained optometrist, Otto Frederick Rohwedder.
The Iowa-born (1880), Missouri-based inventor faced some challenges in his quest to create uniform slices of bread. The invention would have hit store shelves much sooner, but a 1917 fire destroyed his prototype and his blueprints.
Despite his setbacks, Rohwedder rebuilt his “power-drive, multi-bladed” bread slicer, and by 1927, he successfully produced a machine that would perfectly and evenly slice bread. By 1928, the device had been put to service commercially at the Chillicothe Baking Company.
The new contraption hit front page headlines in the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune on July 6, 1928. The report states:
“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 received a hearty and permanent welcome.”
The success of sliced bread took off from there, and by 1930 sliced bread could be found in nearly every town across the country. In the 1920s, homemade bread was still predominant, but by 1930, most Americans had switched the the convenience of eating mass-produced bread. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Rohwedder’s invention, in that the soft, sponge-like factory loaves were almost too soft to slice neatly at home.
In 1930, Continental Baking Company’s now iconic Wonder Bread became the first national brand to be sold sliced. Other major brands followed. By 1933, American bakeries were selling more sliced than unsliced bread loaves.
The availability of sliced bread nationwide drove sales for another bread-related invention — the toaster, invented in 1926 by Charles Strite.
Rohwedder developed seven patents between the years 1927 – 1936 — all having to do with bread slicing and handling. His original invention is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
And as for the phrase, “the best thing since sliced bread?” The common saying may have its origins in the Chillicothe’s original newspaper article where sliced bread is described as “The greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” Later, Wonder Bread came to use similar advertising slogans in sales campaigns. The first documented use of the exact phrase is thought to have been during a 1952 interview when the famous comedian Red Skelton told the Salisbury (Maryland) Times, “not to worry about television. It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
So there you have it. Let’s raise a toast (we couldn’t resist) to Rohwedder, Strite, Skelton, and the fun, relatively recent history of sliced bread.
And know that when you say “The greatest thing since sliced bread,” you’re basically saying “The greatest thing since 1928.”
Also see, The first TV dinner was a Thanksgiving feast.
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