Slice of History

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.

14 thoughts on “Slice of History”

  1. Okay, so now you’ve just about convinced me I need a Pullman pan. The hesitation is that last night at 10:00 it was still 88º here and I’m not baking any bread in this house right now.

    Interesting as usual; thanks, Joe.

    1. Fall is coming fast, Naomi! I just found a bright red leaf on a maple tree on our street…a harbinger of things to come!

      – Joe

      1. Leaves change color where you live? (It was 83º at 10:00 last night, and it’s 85º at 8:30 in the morning now.) Maybe I need to move – but then, winter is about one week in January, then it’s time to plant tomatoes if they didn’t make it through the summer.

        1. Louisville is the only place I’ve ever lived that has four 3-month-long seasons. The springs are long and luxurious with wave after wave of flowers, and the autumns are equally long, with phases of hardwoods going from green to gold and red. It’s lovely. It makes the hot sticky summers worthwhile. Being a northerner I’d like a few more good snows in the winter than we tend to get, but heck, you can’t have everything.

          – Joe

  2. Hi Joe, does the advent of pre-sliced bread coincide with the addition of soy flour to the mix? My understanding is that that’s what keeps most commercial baked goods from going stale too quickly (or at least it’s one of the things that does).

    1. Hey Jen!

      Additives do coincide with the rise of mass-produced breads, which came along after the slicer….but not too long after. Bread makers as you point out were looking for ways to increase shelf life. I don’t know about soy flour exactly…something for me to look into!

      Thanks for the question!

      – Joe

      1. Joe, I found this quote from the book “Food Flavor and Safety” about the use of soya flour in making white bread (much of which is a bit beyond my ken:

        “Native soya flour contains at least 3 lipoxygenase isoenzymes, which improve dough characteristics by peroxidizing unsaturated fatty acids followed by oxidation of proteins (rheology) and carotenoids (bleaching). The fatty acid peroxides formed can also degrade into volatile compounds interfering with the flavor of white bread. Dynamic headspace samples of this bread made with and without soya flour were analysed by gas chromatography (and mass spectrometry). Addition of soya flour increased the concentrations of several secondary lipid oxidation products. Storage of bread improvers containing enzyme active soya flour caused more loss of lipoxygenase activity in a paste than in a powder type of improver. As a consequence their bleaching action and formation of volatile lipid oxidation products were diminished to the same extent.”

        The only experience I indirectly have is that years ago I found a recipe for a homemade dough conditioner using soya (among other things) which I passed on to my brother-in-law who then used it in a blue ribbon winning loaf at our county fair.

      2. I’ve also found this PDF on using soy flour products in baking with a lot of excellent information. While apparently intended for professional bakers, it’s written in more laymen’s terms and may be of interest to some of your readers.

        The practical baker’s applications start on page six of the PDF.

          1. I hope I didn’t go too overboard, but my painter’s mind has been confused for a long time about how adding a yellowish flour like soy could result in a whiter white loaf. When Jen brought up the general soy flour subject, I finally felt the urge to investigate.

            I don’t bake nearly as much as I did in my youth, but the nuances of the baking process are endlessly fascinating and I always enjoy learning more about it. Thanks again for providing this wonderfully informative and unique blog experience.

            And after flooding this section a bit, I’ll now quit the field.

          2. I finally tuned in to the right brain cells this afternoon and remembered that the “enzymes” used to simulate the aging of flour actually come from soy bean. Gad, I’m a goofball. Thanks for all the excellent investigative work, Tom!

            – Joe

    2. Jen, you question reminded me of something I’d read long ago, that adding a little soya flour has a bleaching effect and makes white bread whiter. I was interested enough to do a little digging, and found a few relevant links. I’ll quote from one of them.

      “(Soya flour is) Widely used in bread “improvers”, soya flour has a bleaching effect on flour, and assists the machinability of dough and the volume and softness of bread, enabling more water to be added to the dough.”

        1. Hey Jen! Hey Tom!

          I get the award for most out-to-lunch blogger this week. While writing a reply to reader Sandra on aging flour I realized that in addition to fava bean flour (which contains enzymes that help make gluten stronger) the Europeans also use soy flour to achieve the same end. Duh. As Tom pointed out, it also has a bleaching effect.

          So soy flour is really a substitute for aging flour, which was common practice before about 100 years ago. See the comments under the White Bread post at the top of the blog!

          I tell you…my brain…

          – Joe

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