Making one’s own sandwich bread really puts a person in touch with early 20th century living. What I mean by that is that one must cut one’s own bread, an act that we Americans haven’t had to perform since 1930. That was the year that Wonder Bread debuted sliced bread on a national scale. White bread officially became a “convenience food” and established itself as a staple of the American diet.
Which is not to say that Americans didn’t eat bread before the automatic bread slicer was invented, they just ate less of it, partly because they had to go to the trouble of slicing it by hand. Who knew that slicing was such an ordeal? Actually I know who: Otto Rohwedder. He was the inventor who understood that by eliminating the step of hand slicing he could bring bread — and commercial baking in general — to an entirely new level.
Rohwedder brought his first slicer to market in 1912, but the machine was a flop — literally. Oh, the slicing part was easy enough to master, the trouble was what to do with the slices once they came out on the opposite side of the blades. The loaves simply fell open and the small heap of slices was impossible to bag neatly with any speed.
Rohwedder tried just about everything to maintain the integrity of the sliced loaves, he even tried skewering them with hat pins, but nothing worked. In the meantime he had to contend with obstacles like a factory fire (in 1918), and his own poor health. Indeed as far back as 1915 Rohwedder’s doctor told him he had only a year to live. Still, utterly convinced that sliced bread was the convenience that Americans everywhere had been waiting for, he kept right on working. Finally, sometime around 1925, he hit on the idea of using cardboard caddies to catch the sliced loaves and slip them into wax paper bags. His crazy idea worked and Rohwedder’s new bread slicing machine debuted in 1928.
It was a flop. It turned out no baker was willing to go to the expense of buying such a contraption only to have his bread dry out in a matter of hours. Or at least that’s what every baker who saw the machine believed. At least until Rohwedder met a nearly bankrupt baker from the town of Chillicothe, Missouri, one M.F. “Frank” Bench. Almost out of business and looking for ideas, Bench took a gamble on Rohwedder’s machine. And the rest, as they say, is history. Bench unveiled his Kleen Maid sliced bread on July 7th, 1928. Within a few months sales at Bench’s Chillicothe Baking Company increased by 2,000%.
Of course it wasn’t long before bigger players seized on Rohwedder’s idea. Other inventors began improving on the Rohwedder slicer and unveiling slicers of their own. Wonder Bread, as I mentioned, rolled out their national brand of sliced bread in 1930. In a span of just two years, bread sales increased nationally by 70%. The modern American bread baking industry was born.
Of course sandwiches had a whole new lease on life, so did toast. Up until 1930 electric toasters were little more than odd novelties on department store shelves. To operate one successfully you needed not only electricity — which not everyone had — but also standardized slices of bread. Rohwedder’s slicer was exactly the innovation that toaster makers had been waiting for. By the early 30?s toasters were flying off shelves, and an entire small kitchen appliance industry was created.
Amazing, isn’t it, what one man’s obsession can do. Today Otto Rohwedder is a forgotten name, save for in the town of Chillicothe and in the Baking Hall of Fame at the American Society of Baking where he is one of just a handful of inductees. But just look at where Rohwedder’s little slicer took American food and American culture.