There’s a reason that inventions are frequently touted as being “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” That’s because, honestly, sliced bread is pretty great. Not many of us are old enough anymore to remember when one couldn’t buy sliced bread; not all that long ago, many people made their own bread. My Mom, who grew up on a farm in the Depression, used to talk about how Saturday was the baking day at the Baty household, and how the whole house would smell of the hot, yeasty loaves my Grandma pulled out of the wood-fired farmhouse oven.

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These days, of course, we’re used to buying our bread, and buying it pre-sliced at that; all thanks to an Iowan man named Otto Rohwedder.

Otto Rohwedder gave the world an innovation by which all others are compared. 

Rohwedder, a native of Davenport, Iowa, invented sliced bread. 

It’s the greatest thing since …  Well, it’s the greatest thing, according to popular acclaim. 

“Sliced bread is the standard of all innovation, past, present and future,” said Ed Douglas, a businessman, local historian and county commissioner from Chillicothe, Missouri.

That statement by Ed Douglas is true, given the ubiquitous comparison noted above. But Mr. Rohwedder, like many brilliant men, wasn’t fully appreciated in his time — at least, not at first.

Nobody knows how or why, but at some point in his 30s, Rohwedder conceived the idea of devising a way to slice bread at a commercial level. He returned to his hometown of Davenport in 1916 and used the funds from the sale of his jewelry business to pursue his dream. 

It was a disaster.

“He spent all his time raising money, building a factory and working on his designs,” said “Sliced Bread” Ed.

Rohwedder’s mission to rewrite the epic story of man and bread appeared to end when fire destroyed his factory in nearby Monmouth, Illinois, in November 1917 — and with it his prototype bread slicer and the blueprints for it. 

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 The rest is, as they say, history.


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I’ll Be in the Kitchen


Of course, the nation’s bakers didn’t realize the import of this invention immediately; in fact, the bread-slicer was met with considerable suspicion until a Missouri bakery owner named Frank Bench, who ran the struggling Chillicothe Baking Company, bought one of Rohwedder’s machines in 1928 — and found that sliced bread was the greatest thing since, well, bread.

While this innovation may well be one of the origins of our softer, more pampered culture of the current era, we need to look ahead only 15 years, to the height of World War 2. The Roosevelt administration was already rationing gasoline, meat, coffee, and sugar. But when they broached the idea of rationing sliced bread — well, lots of Americans got really crusty at the idea. Not even a world war was about to get between American households and their sliced bread.

Otto Rohwedder passed away in 1960, having not only changed the world of baking but also having set the standard by which every invention in every field must be judged. His legacy is before us every time we make ourselves a lunchtime sandwich without having to reach for a bread knife; whether our druthers be white or wheat, sourdough or multi-grain, rye or pumpernickel, we can get it pre-sliced, thanks to the far-seeing mind of one of the very kind of brilliant, exceptional people that the state of Iowa is famous for producing: Otto Rohwedder.

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