There’s evidence that humans have been baking bread in some form for about 30,000 years, but sliced bread has only been around since the early 20th century. The first automatically sliced commercial loaves were produced on July 6, 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri, using a machine invented by Otto Rohwedder, an Iowa-born, Missouri-based jeweler.
Rohwedder’s quest to make sliced bread a reality was not without its challenges. A 1917 fire destroyed his prototype and blueprints, and he also faced skepticism from bakers, who thought factory-sliced loaves would quickly go stale or fall apart. Nevertheless, in 1928, Rohwedder’s rebuilt “power-driven, multi-bladed” bread slicer was put into service at his friend Frank Bench’s Chillicothe Baking Company.
Rohwedder’s newfangled contraption was greeted with an enthusiastic report in the July 6, 1928, edition of the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune. The publication noted that while some people might find sliced bread “startling,” the typical housewife could expect “a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows. So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.”
The article also recounted that “considerable research” had gone into determining the right thickness for each slice: slightly less than half an inch.
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Sliced bread didn’t take long to become a hit around the United States, even as some bakers contended it was just a fad, and by 1930 it could be found in most towns across the country. By that point, the majority of Americans were eating commercially made bread—compared with just decades earlier, when most of the supply was still homemade. The factory-produced loaves were designed to be softer than those prepared at home or at small, local bakeries because the bread-buying public had come to equate “squeezable softness” with freshness, writes food historian Aaron Bobrow-Strain in his book White Bread. The timing therefore was right for an automatic slicing machine because, as Bobrow-Strain says, these softer, “modern loaves had become almost impossible to slice neatly at home.”
One of the first major brands to distribute sliced bread was Wonder, starting in 1930. Wonder Bread originally appeared in stores in 1921 in Indianapolis, where it was manufactured by the Taggart Baking Company. An executive there dreamed up the bread’s name after being filled with wonder while watching the International Balloon Race at the Indianapolis Speedway. After the Continental Baking Company bought Taggart in 1925, Wonder was sold nationally; the bread’s popularity soared once it was marketed in sliced form.
During World War II, factory-sliced bread, including Wonder, was briefly banned by the U.S. government in an effort to conserve resources, such as the paper used to wrap each loaf to help maintain freshness. In 2012, Wonder Bread disappeared completely from store shelves after its then-owner, Hostess Brands (which also made Twinkies and Ding Dongs, among other famous snacks), declared bankruptcy. The following year, another company stepped in and re-launched the iconic brand.