We’ve got a guest blogger on FPF this week: Aaron Bobrow-Strain the author of the new book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. Below, Aaron gives us a little teaser history of sliced bread and the reactions it garnered when it was first released.
When Frank Bench, the owner of a nearly bankrupt bakery, and his friend Otto Rohwedder, an equally down-at-the-heels inventor, successfully ran the world’s first automatic bread slicer in Chillicothe, Missouri, they accomplished something nearly every member of the American baking establishment thought impossible—and utterly stupid.
By July 1928, when Bench and Rohwedder’s surprising product debuted, retail bakers had used machines to slice loaves at the point of sale for years, but few in the industry believed that bread should be automatically sliced as it came off the assembly line. Bread was too unruly. What would hold the sliced loaves together? How would slicing affect the chemistry of taste? What would prevent sliced bread from rapidly molding or staling?
Rohwedder’s designs for the automatic slicer dated back to 1917, but he found no takers for the idea and had almost given up hope. For Bench, installing the machine was a favor to his friend and a last shot in the dark. What did he have to lose?
The results astounded all observers. Sales of sliced bread soared 2000 percent within weeks, and a beaming Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune reporter described housewives’ “thrill of pleasure” upon “first see[ing] a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows…indefinitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand.” News spread rapidly. Sliced bread took off first in Missouri,Iowa, and Illinois, then spread throughout the Midwest by late summer 1928. By fall 1928, mechanical slicing had hit New York, New Jersey, and the West Coast. By 1930, 90 percent of all store-bought bread in the country was automatically sliced.
Some bakers dismissed sliced bread as a fad, comparing it to other Roaring Twenties crazes like barnstorming and jazz dancing. Nevertheless, as bakers wrote in frantic trade magazine articles, anyone who resisted the new technology would be crushed by the competition.
While awaiting deliveries of mechanical slicers from hopelessly backordered manufacturers, bakers asked themselves a logical question: What’s so great about sliced bread? “Why does anyone want sliced bread anyway?” one baker wrote. “The housewife is saved one operation in the preparation of a meal. Yet, try as one will,the reasons do not seem valid enough to make demand for the new product.”
He had a point. How much extra work is it really to slice your own bread? And what about housewives’ “thrill of pleasure”? A little saved labor couldn’t explain a reaction like that. Why did so many people care so much about perfectly neat slices? What had sliced bread come to symbolize?
Aaron tracks down the answers to these questions in his new book, and the answers will surprise you. He says “…It may get you thinking twice about our own confident visions of what counts as ‘good food.’” Ok, my interest is piqued.
But I want to throw this question out to you, readers: What do you think was/is so great about sliced bread?