If you have ever baked bread, you know there are a couple of problems with the finished loaf. It’s difficult to neatly, evenly cut it into slices and once it’s sliced the bread becomes stale more quickly. These might seem like mere frustrations for the home baker, but they’re very serious problems for the large-scale production of bread by a commercial bakery.
Ever since loaves of bread were baked for public purchase, bakers didn’t really give any thought to providing pre-sliced bread to their customers. People simply brought bread home, then sliced it as needed. This was just the way the business worked until a jeweler/inventor from Davenport, Iowa pondered his daily bread.
Otto Rohwedder was born to Claus and Elizabeth Rohwedder on July 7, 1880. He attended public school in Davenport and was an apprentice to a local jeweler. He then attended Opthalmology and Otology school in Chicago, Illinois. After graduation, Rohwedder became a jeweler, eventually owning three jewelry stores in St. Joseph, Missouri.
In 1912, Rohwedder decided to seriously develop his idea to make pre-sliced bread into a practical reality. He sold his jewelry stores and moved to Monmouth, Illinois to work on his invention. Unfortunately, a fire broke out in the factory in 1917, his prototype and blueprints were destroyed. Rohwedder landed a job as an investment and securities agent to support his family and to fund the redevelopment of his invention. It took ten years to recoup his losses and re-invent his machine.
The new bread slicing machine quickly divided loaves of bread into evenly spaced slices and tightly wrapped the loaves in waxed paper. Even though his fellow inventors lavished praise on the machine, bakers showed no interest in the slicer. The five-feet wide by three-feet tall machine was believed to be too large and complicated for everyday bread baking use. As a last resort, Rohwedder asked his friend, Frank Bench, a nearly bankrupt bakery owner in Chillicothe, Missouri, to buy one of his slicing machines. Bench reluctantly agreed.
The first bread slicing machine was set up in the Chillicothe Baking Company. On July 7, 1928, Otto Rohwedder’s 48th birthday, the very first loaf of commercially sliced bread was sold. The new product went to market with the name “Kleen Maid Bread”. Very soon, the product became incredibly popular around the Chillicothe, Missouri vicinity. Newspapers also gave very positive product reviews of the slicer. Bench, the baker, easily recovered from near bankruptcy when bread sales increased by about 2,000 percent.
Kleen Maid Bread bought a full-page advertisement in the “Constitution-Tribune” newspaper boasting that sliced bread was “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped”. Of course the slogan morphed into the well-worn, beloved cliche’, “…the greatest thing since sliced bread”, to describe amazing inventions and gadgets.
In 1930, Continental Baking Company of New York built their entire business plan around Rohwedder’s invention. Their product “WonderCut Bread” (later renamed “Wonder Bread”) increased sliced bread sales to cultural popularity. Before the mid 1930s most reputable bakeries owned one or more Rohwedder slicing machines. Within five years of sliced bread’s introduction in Missouri, 80-percent of all commercially baked bread in America was sold pre-sliced.