One Missouri town almost forgot it invented the greatest thing in the world: sliced ​​bread – KCUR | Mega Mediakw

For more stories like this, subscribe to A People’s History of Kansas City on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher.

On Main Street in Chillicothe, Missouri, you’ll pass a large, colorful mural: “Home of Sliced ​​Bread.”

It’s actually the official slogan for the city, which hosts an annual Sliced ​​Bread Day on July 7, a celebration made official by the Missouri General Assembly in 2018.

The celebrations include a parade, concerts, a 5K run, a golf tournament and a bread baking competition. Thousands of people come to this rural town of about 10,000 people every year.

But less than two decades ago, according to former reporter Catherine Strotz Ripley, Chillicothe residents had no idea they even had that claim to fame.

“I don’t know why pretty much everyone has forgotten that,” says Ripley.

Suzanne Hogan

/

KCUR 89.3

Frank Bench’s old bakery, where machine-sliced ​​bread was first made available to the public in 1928, has since been converted into a welcome center for Chillicothe, Missouri.

Burst into flames

For most of the story, if you wanted a slice of bread, you had to take a knife and cut it yourself. The slices were not of a uniform width or shape and could sometimes be crushed in the process.

It was Otto Rohwedder, a jeweler from Davenport, Iowa, who came up with the idea of ​​a machine that could quickly create perfect slices from a loaf of bread. By 1917 his bread slicer was ready for production: a 10-foot-long metal box with a series of sharp blades that pulsed up and down and side to side.

Ripley says Rohwedder’s invention was ready to be manufactured at an Illinois plant when the plant was destroyed by fire.

“He lost everything,” she says. “All of his blueprints, his equipment, everything. And so he just gave up.”

Rohwedder soon fell ill and his doctor told him he did not have long to live. So he sold his jewelry business and built another bread slicer.

But he had a hard time finding someone who really wanted to use it.

“The bakers scoffed at the idea,” says Ripley.

This early Rohwedder slicer was used at the Korn Baking Company in Davenport, Iowa.

Courtesy of Catherine Stortz Ripley

/

This early Rohwedder slicer was used at the Korn Baking Company in Davenport, Iowa.

Luckily, Rohwedder reunited with an old friend, a co-inventor and entrepreneur named Frank Bench, who happened to run a bakery in Chillicothe, Missouri. The two had previously worked together on a bread rack.

Bench agreed to give the machine a try. They placed an ad in the newspaper: “The biggest advance in the baking industry since bread was wrapped – a fine loaf sells better.”

SlicedBread1928Newspa#22D7F.png

Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune

/

The Chillicothe Baking Co. placed an advertisement in The Constitution-Tribune newspaper on July 6, 1928, announcing the arrival of sliced ​​bread.

The ad continued, “The notion of sliced ​​bread may come as a surprise to some people. Certainly it represents a significant departure from the usual way of providing the consumer with bakery loves, a realization that this is actually a solid, sensible and in every respect progressive further development of the baker’s bread service.”

The next day, July 7, 1928, sliced ​​bread from Rohwedder’s machine was made available to the world for the first time.

Within two weeks, the amount of bread sold at Bench’s bakery increased by 2,000%, according to Ripley. “And bakers really knocked on his door,” she says.

“Morals and Sanity”

Rohwedder’s innovation could not have come at the perfect time: the culmination of nearly 50 years of rapid industrialization, when more and more manufactured products were designed for ease of use and convenience.

Uniformly sliced ​​bread helped boost sales of the double-sided automatic pop-up toaster, first patented in 1921. And in 1930, the Continental Baking Company—one of the first bakeries to make fortified bread—introduced Wonder Bread, a pre-sliced ​​bread that is now generally available to the public.

07052022_SH_PamKlingermanBreadslicingdemo.JPG

Suzanne Hogan

/

KCUR 89.3

Pam Clingerman works at the Grand River Historical Society Museum in Chillicothe, Missouri. She says the bread slice display was a helpful tool for people to connect to the greater meaning of what this innovation meant in history.

Within a decade, and despite the twin financial pressures of the Great Depression and World War II, sliced ​​bread was quickly becoming a staple in American homes.

So much so, in fact, that the US government’s brief attempt to slice bread was met with a furious backlash. On January 18, 1943, new Office of Price Administration regulations prohibited bakeries from selling pre-sliced ​​bread to keep prices down for the war effort.

After the ban, a woman named Sue Forrester sent a letter to The New York Times On behalf of the nation’s housewives, “I want you to know how important sliced ​​bread is to the morale and sanity of a household,” she wrote.

Forester complained that she had to hand-cut over 30 slices of bread a day to support her family, calling it a waste of time, energy and money. “They look less appetizing than the clean, even pieces from the baker.”

And because of the war, a good bread knife was hard to find.

according to a Article about dental floss written about the incident, the rule was apparently so unpopular that no one in government was willing to admit having had the original idea. It didn’t take long for the ban to be lifted.

nyt sliced ​​bread.png

The New York Times Archives

/

An article in the New York Times of March 9, 1943 reports the end of a ban on sliced ​​bread.

March 9, 1943, The New York Times reports this headline: “Sliced ​​bread is offered for sale again; Housewives have their fingers crossed again.”

A forgotten success

Sliced ​​bread wasn’t just a success, it was a revolution. Yet none of the original men who made it possible grew rich from it, and the town of Chillicothe forgot the central role it played.

Bench lost his bakery during the Great Depression, while Rohwedder sold his patent rights to Micro Westco Company and joined their Bakery Machine Division, which they named after him.

Despite a diagnosis that left Rohwedder with only a few years to live, he eventually survived decades longer and died in 1960 at the age of 80.

It was almost by accident that Rohwedder’s legacy came to light almost four decades after his death.

07052022_SH_OttoRohwedder bread cutting machine.JPG

Suzanne Hogan

/

KCUR 89.3

The original Rohwedder bread slicer from 1928 broke after six months of use. Otto Rohwedder’s children donated this second bread slicer, used in an Iowa bakery, to the Smithsonian in 1974. She is currently on loan to the Grand River Historical Society Museum in Chillicothe, Missouri.

While researching a history book project, Catherine Stortz Ripley – then editor of the Chillicothe Constitution Tribune – spent a great deal of time going through the microfilms of old local newspapers in the library. Among the tens of thousands of clips she scrolled through, one story immediately stood out.

“It was just a little headline,” Ripley recalled. “It said, ‘This is where sliced ​​bread is baked. Chillicothe Baking Co. was the first baker in the world to sell this product to the public.”

Ripley remained skeptical of the claim, but found it interesting enough that she copied the article and wrote a small blurb about it for the Constitution Tribune. She eventually published the find in her book Dateline Livingston County: A Look At Local History, published in 2001.

07052022_CatherineStortzRipley_ChillicotheMissouri.JPG

Catherine Stortz Ripley scrolled through microfilms of each Chillicothe newspaper while researching her history book from 1860 onwards. She estimates she’s skimmed over 30,000 issues.

Two years later, a reporter from The Kansas City Star became interested in Ripley’s rediscovery and interviewed her for an article marking the anniversary of the invention: “At 75, sliced ​​bread deserves a birthday toast.”

That’s when things really started to pick up speed. The star article was picked up by the Associated Press and shared worldwide.

“I even got calls from Australia and Canada and from major news markets… and they wanted to know the rest of the story,” says Ripley. “And unfortunately I only had this newspaper article.”

A little detective work and a lucky tip finally led Ripley to someone who could tell the rest of the story: Richard Rohwedder, Otto’s son, who had lived in Arkansas and kept a scrapbook full of materials recounting his father’s journey.

07052022_CatherineStortzRipley_RichardRohwedder2003.jpg

CT Photo / Catherine Stortz Ripley

/

Richard Rohwedder aged 88 in front of the red brick building where his father’s bread slicer was put into service in July 1928. Rohwedder paid a visit to Chillicothe, Missouri in 2003 and met with reporter Catherine Stortz Ripley as he pieced together the story of his father’s legacy.

Indeed, on that day in 1928, Richard was in Chillicothe with the Chillicothe Baking Company – a young boy watching his father’s machine make its grand debut.

Livingston County Commissioner Ed Douglas immediately saw how sliced ​​bread could become an economic opportunity for Chillicothe—and a way for residents to band together and be proud of their town.

“I mean, we can really build on that,” says Douglas, now nicknamed “Sliced ​​Ed.”

“Everyone knows the saying, the greatest thing since sliced ​​bread,” Douglas continues. “They’re not saying the greatest thing since the iPhone or anything else, they’re saying it is the biggest thing. So it really is the standard of all innovations past, present and future. And that’s what made this country really great. It’s about entrepreneurship and ideas.”

07052022_SH_ChillicotheMissouriSlicedBreadMural.JPG

Suzanne Hogan

/

KCUR 89.3

The city of Chillicothe, Missouri installed a mural on the city’s Main Street to celebrate its claim to be the “Home of the Sliced ​​Bread,” an innovation that debuted at the Chillicothe Baking Company in 1928.

The Grand River Historical Society Museum in Chillicothe now has a bread slice exhibit where you can see one of Rohwedder’s early machines.

And the city was able to acquire Frank Bench’s old bakery and convert it into a welcome center – you can tell which building it is by the huge loaf of bread on the roof.

“When we started doing this 20 years ago, my family said, dad, you embarrass us. I mean, they just thought it was silly,” Douglas says, laughing. “But interestingly, they don’t say that anymore. It’s become a deal big enough that they’re like, ‘Okay, you’re right.'”

This episode of A People’s History of Kansas City was reported and produced by Suzanne Hogan, with editing by Barb Shelly and Gabe Rosenberg, and with the help of Mackenzie Martin.

Leave a Comment