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Take a Look at the Patents Behind Sliced Bread

It took a surprising amount of technological know-how to make the bread that birthed the expression

Even though the idea of sliced bread took off like a shot, it took the inventor of the bread-slicing machine years to convince bakers to try his invention. (Flickr/SliceofChic)
smithsonian.com

Some products are so ubiquitous that it can feel as if they were never invented at all.

Take sliced bread. Around 130 years ago,  the idea of buying a pre-sliced loaf would have been met with confusion, writes Jesse Rhodes for Smithsonian Magazine. “In 1890, about 90 percent of bread was baked at home, but by 1930, factories usurped the home baker,” Rhodes writes. But the two breads weren’t the same thing–”factory breads were also incredibly soft,” she writes, making them difficult to slice properly at home with a bread knife.

Since breadmaking had moved to factories, why not bread slicing as well? On this day in 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri, the Chillicothe Baking Company became, in the words of its plaque, “The Home of Sliced Bread.” It was the place where the bread-slicing machine was first installed, wrote J. J. Thompson for Tulsa World in 1989. Thompson was speaking with the son of the bread-slicing machine’s inventor, Richard O. Rohwedder. His father, Otto F. Rohwedder, was a jeweler who started work on the bread-slicing project years before.

The Rohwedder family all went down to the factory to see the bread-slicing machine on its first day, Richard Rohwedder said. They brought the slicer to the factory, “and I fed the first loaf of bread into the slicer,” he recalled.

The patent for the bread slicing machine explains how it worked: the machine moved the bread into the slicer and then a series of “endless cutting bands” sliced the loaf before moving it along to where it could easily be packaged by a specially designed bread wrapping machine–another patent of Rohwedder’s.

The bread-wrapping machine was just one of a number of patents for which Rohwedder was responsible: these included a cardboard bread holder that shrank as the loaf did; a retail display rack for bread; and structural improvements like an improved conveyor belt for getting bread in and out of the slicer.

Among the other bread-related products Otto F. Rohwedder invented to support the bread-slicing machine was a bread holder that shrank as the loaf did. It responded to concerns that pre-sliced bread would inevitably go stale before the consumer wanted to eat it. (U.S. Pat. No. 1,816,399)

Rohwedder’s original invention of the slicing machine dated back to 1917, writes author Aaron Bobrow-Strain, but he had worked to refine and re-refine the idea in the intervening time. “Many bakers actively opposed factory slicing,” he writes, and the inventor was almost ready to throw in the towel.

The owner of the Chillicothe Baking Company, the man who first took a chance on the machine, was named Frank Bench, a friend of Rohwedder’s. Bench’s bakery was near bankruptcy, so he took a chance on the idea even though most bakers thought pre-slicing would make the bread stale.

“The results astounded all observers,” Bobrow-Strain writes. Bench’s bread sales soon skyrocketed by 2000 percent, and mechanical slicing quickly spread around the country. “By 1929, an industry report suggested that there was practically no town of more than twenty-five thousand people without a supply of sliced bread,” he writes.

“I remember the phone ringing day and night, all the time, with bakers ordering slices,” Richard Rohwedder said.

Rohwedder’s seemingly booming business was affected by the Great Depression, and he was forced to sell his patent rights to a larger company, who kept him on as staff. But still—he had the satisfaction of knowing he was the man to invent sliced bread.

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