The last time you said or heard someone say that something was “the best thing since sliced bread,” did you have any follow-up questions? Maybe, “When was sliced bread invented?” Or perhaps, “Who do we have to thank for sliced bread, anyway?”
The short answer is that sliced bread was invented on July 7, 1928.
The history of sliced bread is marked by innovation, a factory fire, wary consumers, a wartime ban and public outcry. It’s a little-known story full of drama and intrigue.
Today’s consumers would have difficulty imagining a world without sliced bread, but it’s actually a somewhat new concept. While bread has been around for thousands of years, sliced bread is less than a century old — some people today are older than sliced bread. What bakers in the early 20th century thought would be a passing fad has become a staple in kitchens across the world.
Bread History: Who Invented Bread?
So, how old is sliced bread? And for that matter, when was bread invented? For many centuries, bread did not resemble the perfect, uniform slices you might find in your pantry today. According to archeological finds, bread is one of the oldest foods ever made, dating back about 30,000 years. It is an integral part of human civilization, symbolizing the origins of agriculture itself.
Bread has been a culinary staple since ancient times when people began domesticating plants and discovered how to grind grains — such as wheat, barley, sorghum, rice and maize — to produce flour. This ancient form of bread was cooked over open flames or on hot stones.
The ancient Greeks introduced the concept of leavening bread using yeast. They also invented bread ovens that could be preheated. These were free-standing with a door for access. Following in the footsteps of the Greeks, the Romans refined bread-making further and popularized public bakeries. During the Middle Ages, bread became a staple in the diets of people from every class.
Over time, bakers have complicated bread-making, creating fluffy, flavorful varieties. An early loaf of bread would look foreign to the modern consumer — it took on various shapes rather than even loaves and contained whichever ingredients were on hand. To eat it, you’d tear off a piece or chunks, hence the expression “break bread together.” People continued to tear off bread in their own kitchens until the 20th century.
Otto Frederick Rohwedder and the Invention of Sliced Bread
The catalyst for such an interesting story had to be an intriguing man, and Otto Frederick Rodwedder was nothing short. He lived from 1880 to 1960 and was born in Davenport, Iowa. After his public schooling, he became a jeweler’s apprentice. Rohwedder went to post-secondary school and earned a degree in optics from the Northern Illinois College of Ophthalmology and Otology. However, he went on to work as a jeweler, in line with the trade where he apprenticed. Eventually, he owned three jewelry stores.
Despite his day job, Rohwedder was an inventor at heart. He tinkered with his jewelry products to devise clever new machines. He decided he wanted to invent a bread-slicing machine. In a leap of faith, he sold his jewelry stores for capital, and he created a promising prototype. He then suffered a devastating loss. In 1917, a fire in his factory destroyed his blueprints and his prototype. It would take another decade before anyone would sell sliced bread.
When and Where Was Sliced Bread Invented?
Rohwedder continued to improve upon his vision despite the 1917 fire. By 1928, he had created a 10-foot-long metal box with a row of sharp blades that would be used to slice and wrap bread. After conducting research to determine the perfect bread thickness, he settled on half-inch slices. He applied for patents and sold his first machine to Frank Bench — his old friend and a baker in Missouri.
The machine stayed in Bench’s Chillicothe Baking Company, where he began selling sliced bread. Thus, Missouri is home to the first pre-sliced and packaged bread sales!
Rohwedder sold a second machine to baker Gustav Papendick, who found a way to improve it. Papendick figured out how to keep the slices together as the machine wrapped them — placing them in a cardboard tin. This kept the slices fresh longer.
Sliced Bread Makes the News
In 1928, the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, where the Chillicothe Baking Company was located, published an advertisement with the headline, “Sliced Bread Is Made Here.” The advertisement references a “power-driven multi-bladed bread slicer” capable of performing an impossible feat — slicing whole loaves of bread at once.
This was the first-ever reference to sliced bread in print. It offered instructions for the consumer, suggesting you should “open [the] wrapper at one end” and “pull out the pin” to access a slice of bread. It also called sliced bread “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” Before long, major baking companies joined the trend of making sliced bread. Within a few years, bakeries were producing more sliced loaves than unsliced loaves.
Rohwedder Sells the Patent
Rohwedder sold his patent rights to the Micro-Westo Company of Iowa, where he led the Rohwedder Bakery Machine Division. There, he helped sell his device to more and more bakeries. He remained little-known. Despite his huge impact on American culture, he did not become rich or famous for his invention.
He lived a quiet life in Louisiana with his wife and two children. He retired at age 71 and passed away nine years later. In his lifetime, he received seven bread-slicing technology patents. His original sliced bread machine remains in the Smithsonian Institution Behring Center.
Sliced Bread’s Impact
When sliced bread made its debut, people were unsure what to think. With its long-standing reputation as one of the best inventions ever, you’d think it was popular right away. In reality, it took a bit of convincing to get bakeries and consumers on board with sliced bread. In the early 20th century, pre-sliced bread was a novel, strange idea.
Reacting to Initial Concerns
At first, sliced bread received mixed reviews. Consumers thought the early bread slices looked sloppy and were wary about them going stale too fast. Remember that this was before foods contained preservatives. A sliced loaf was bound to go bad before an unsliced loaf would. Improvements in machine packaging by Rohwedder, Papendick and others helped solve this issue.
Changing Nationwide Eating Habits
Soon, Americans grew to love sliced bread’s convenience, especially the housewives who made breakfast and lunch for their families. Readily available Wonder Bread was the most popular. Uniform bread slices made it much easier to make a few sandwiches for your children’s lunches or pieces of toast for breakfast. As a result, people began eating more bread. This trend continues today — over 326 million Americans used bread in 2020, and more than 335 million are expected to use bread in 2024!
Popularizing the Toaster
Another impact of sliced bread was the increased popularity of the toaster. Believe it or not, the toaster was invented before sliced bread. In 1893, Alan MacMasters of Scotland created an electric device he called the “Eclipse Toaster.” You can imagine why it had limited success, given that sliced bread was not yet invented and electricity itself was not widespread. After all, when was the last time you used your toaster for something other than bread products or toaster waffles, which weren’t invented until 1953?
Several inventors improved on the toaster idea over the next few years. In 1919, Charles Strife debuted a toaster with a timer and spring, which he sold as the “Toastmaster” in 1926 — two years before Rohwedder would invent his sliced bread machine. A few years later, when sliced bread became popular, “Toastmaster” sales shot up. Now, almost every American kitchen is equipped with both a toaster and a loaf of sliced bread.
More Unexpected Things Older Than Sliced Bread
Aside from toasters, many other products are, surprisingly, older than sliced bread. Check out some of them:
- The word robot: The word “robot” was first mentioned in the 1920 play R.U.R by Czech playwright Karel Capek. The first actual robot was invented in 1954.
- Lie detectors: The first lie detector was invented in 1921 by a medical student at the University of California named John Larson.
- Kleenex: The first facial tissue was invented in 1924 — four years before people started enjoying the convenience of sliced bread.
- Others: The electric bulb, telegraph and fax machine were invented at least half a decade before sliced bread.
During the same year that sliced bread was invented, there were some more notable inventions. Among them is the development of the antibiotic penicillin by Scottish doctor and bacteriologist Alexander Fleming. It was the same year that British inventor John Logie Bard demonstrated the world’s first color television transmission.
“The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread”
Since its invention, sliced bread has become a universal symbol of innovation and convenience in the modern, industrial age. The popular idiom, “the greatest thing since sliced bread” is a way to show enthusiasm and appreciation for something or someone. The expression originated as an advertising tactic for new inventions in the baking industry. It’s possible the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune advertisement started the trend when it called sliced bread “the greatest step forward since wrapped bread.”
Sliced bread made life more convenient than ever before. It’s no wonder that decades later it’s used as a reference for inventions that make a huge impression!
An Advertising Bandwagon
A 1933 Evansville Press publication appears to be the first to use a variation of the “greatest thing since sliced bread” idiom. The Walsh Baking Company calls their Golden Toast “the first improvement since sliced bread.” In 1934, Bell Bakeries used the quote “the most progressive step…in the baking industry since sliced bread” to describe their freshness-dated bread.
Then, in 1939, another quote surfaced in the Lafayette Journal and Courier. An advertisement from Ruger’s hailed their pantry-package twin-style bread as “the newest thing since sliced bread.”
Across the country, sliced bread was becoming the point of comparison for innovation and general “greatness.” As such a common advertising slogan, the expression entered common speech in new ways.
A Way to Show Appreciation
After a few decades, people began using the expression to show admiration for people, not just products. In 1951, American journalist Dorothy Kilgallen quoted her sister calling an actor “the greatest thing since sliced bread!” The actor in question was heartthrob Hollywood star Stewart Granger, who played a role in a film called “King Solomon’s Mines.”
This was likely not the first time someone used this expression in this fashion — but it is the earliest instance it appears in print. An ironic play on a common marketing tactic became part of everyday language. Today, you’ll find the expression in English-speaking idiom dictionaries and glossaries.
The 1943 Ban on Sliced Bread
Sliced bread’s grip on society became more evident than ever in 1943. During World War II, the federal government rationed and banned certain products as a way to preserve resources. Due to the War Food Administration, consumers could only buy products like meat, cheese and sugar using state-issued ration coupons. One target of resource conservation efforts was sliced bread.
The Secretary of Agriculture, Claude R. Wickard, banned pre-sliced bread in bakeries and homes. Hotels, restaurants and railroad dining cars could continue selling sliced bread for 60 days. The government’s goal was to preserve wax paper, wheat and steel and to reduce bread prices for the consumer. Interestingly, there was no shortage of either wax paper or wheat at the time. Bread companies had enough wax paper on hand to last for months, and the nation had a surplus of wheat bushels.
The idea that a sliced bread ban would conserve steel made little sense, as bakers could use the same bread-slicing machine for many years. At best, the ban would conserve a minuscule amount of resources. And even though the ban was supposed to reduce prices, it was unpopular with consumers.
By 1943, consumers had grown accustomed to sliced bread’s convenience. When the government passed the ban, housewives scavenged for bread knives, which were soon in short supply. Those who found bread knives were no happier as a result. One housewife, Sue Forrester of Connecticut, became a spokesperson for Americans’ discontent with the ban. She wrote to the New York Times, saying sliced bread was important for the “morale and saneness of a household” and that hand-cutting dozens of bread slices every day was a major waste of time and energy.
Bakeries were not any more content than consumers. The ban led to sales drops and lost profits. Some bakeries continued to slice their bread, facing steep fines as a result. Just 15 years after its invention, sliced bread had become a necessity for any bakery to sell.
The War Food Administration lifted the ban around three months after placing it. This was due to a combination of the ban’s minimal helpfulness and the public outcry it inspired. When the government lifted the ban, the New York Times ran an article called, “Sliced Bread Put Back on Sale; Housewives’ Thumbs Safe Again.” Sure enough, Americans had grown to love sliced bread.
Sliced Bread Around the World
Sliced bread’s convenience has made it popular around the world. A sliced loaf of bread looks different depending on where you live. You’ll find regional variations in ingredients, cooking methods, flour types and slice thickness. Of course, many cultures specialize in flatbreads and tortillas, such as Indian naan or Armenian lavash. Here are some of the distinctions between sliced bread varieties in different countries — the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan.
In sliced bread’s home country, you can find standard loaves of about 20-24 slices. Each slice is usually 3/8-5/8 inches thick. That is unless you’re talking about Texas toast, which is sliced about double the average thickness. You can also find thin-sliced options with more slices per loaf.
In any major grocery store, you’ll see white, wheat, Italian, sourdough and multigrain sliced bread loaves. You may find other varieties, as well, such as rye bread, butter bread, cinnamon raisin bread and gluten-free bread. Wonder Bread, one of the first major sliced bread brands, remains available today. The brand has passed hands a few times in the last century. Its current owner is Flower Foods, who bought it from Hostess.
The United States is home to a wide range of different sliced bread varieties. A grocery store’s bread aisle often contains dozens of choices. Regardless of your personal taste and dietary restrictions, you can find sliced bread for you.
In the United Kingdom, bread is often labeled “thin,” “medium,” “thick” or “extra thick.” Leading brands include Warburtons, Hovis, Kingsmill and Tesco. Sliced bread is useful for more than sandwiches in the United Kingdom — a common light meal is beans or eggs on toast. A recipe book by Tonia George features dozens of different ways to enjoy food on toast. The book’s title is “Things on Toast: Meals from the Grill — the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread.”
In Japan, sliced bread is a little different. Shokupan, or “eating bread,” is a sliced white bread that serves as a neutral backdrop for the rest of the meal. Japanese bread is generally sliced thicker than Western loaves, with anywhere from four to 10 slices per loaf. Standard sliced bread loaves are not usually made for sandwiches, but for toast, which is why they tend to be so thick. For the same reason, vertical pop-up toasters are much less popular than toaster ovens. You can also find thinner-sliced sandwich bread. In some bakeries, consumers can specify the number of slices they want for their loaf.
How Sliced Bread Changed Through the Ages
Bread-making has come a long way since the days of early civilization. In the decades following Rohwedder’s invention of the sliced bread machine, baking has changed by leaps and bounds. Today, industrialized processes allow bread-making to be faster and done on a larger scale and more uniformly than ever before. Today’s bread also has a much longer shelf-life thanks to added preservatives.
The dawn of large-scale manufacturing affected everything about daily life. One key bread-making revolution was the invention of the Chorleywood bread-making process in 1961. The process, developed at the British Baking Industries Research Association, makes bread-making faster and allows for low-protein wheat. It also makes slices softer, more uniform and longer-lasting.
The Chorleywood Baking Process is useful for baking any yeast-leavened bakery products. It modifies the dough’s protein structure with dough conditioners and high-speed mixing. The mixing takes under five minutes, and the dough conditioners might include a variety of oxidizing agents, emulsifiers and enzymes. Oxidizing agents improve gas retention during proofing and include ascorbic acid or potassium bromate. Meanwhile, emulsifiers lengthen shelf life and enzymes boost yeast activity. As a result of these changes, the dough is stretchier and retains more gas as the yeast ferments.
This process produces greater quantities of more consistent end products — so you can see why it has become popular. Today, most mass-produced breads are made with the Chorleywood process. It offers quick, unchanging results every time, which makes bread much easier to sell.
Since the sliced bread age, the invention of preservatives has changed the way people produce, buy and consume food. Preservatives are chemicals that inhibit food deterioration. Without preservatives, microorganisms and oxidation make food go “bad” more quickly. The three main categories of preservatives include antimicrobials, antioxidants and chelating agents:
- Antimicrobials: As the name suggests, antimicrobials fight against mold and bacterial growth. Some examples include potassium, calcium and sodium. For yeast-leavened bread, antimicrobials have to be gentle on yeast. In this case, the best option is calcium and sodium with active propionic acid. Antimicrobials, as useful as they are, present certain challenges. They often require acidic conditions and, in large amounts, can alter flavor and smell.
- Antioxidants: Antioxidants delay the oxidation of fats and oils. This helps prevent discoloration. Some common antioxidants include ascorbic acid, butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene. The latter two are common in butter and shortening. Ascorbic acid, containing vitamin C, also acts as a dough strengthener when oxidized.
- Chelating Agents: Chelating agents, or sequestrants, help bind metals that can cause oxidation. The most common are citric acid, ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) and polyphosphate. Each is colorless, odorless and tasteless — so they do not affect the way baked goods look, smell or taste. They keep food fresh longer by controlling trace metals.
Added preservatives are useful and important. They keep food edible for longer periods of time, which allows the consumer to buy in bulk and shop less often for perishable foods. In the same way, they can help decrease food waste. However, if you’re looking to appeal to all-natural consumers, look for certified United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic products. These products cannot contain artificial preservatives, with some necessary exceptions.
Choose Gold Medal Bakery for the Best Quality Bread
Bread has been one of the most important foods in human history. For tens of thousands of years, it has been a key part of any agricultural society’s diet. The last century has hosted a revolution in the way we create, distribute and eat bread. Today, pre-sliced and pre-packaged bread is a cornerstone in the modern pantry.
If you’re looking to stock your store shelves with the best bread products, consider Gold Medal Bakery. We’ve been delivering quality baked goods since 1912, long before the invention of pre-sliced bread! We offer a wide variety of products, which you can order through our online order management tool. We fulfill private-label branded items for your store brand. Learn about our options — browse our sliced bread varieties today!