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Posted on Tue, Jul. 29, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
History of sliced bread little known on 75th anniversary

The Kansas City Star

Everyone has heard "it's the greatest thing since sliced bread," used to hype everything from toasters to cell phones.

Indeed, the phrase is the ultimate depiction of innovative achievement and American know-how.

Yet few know when and where this icon of cultural convenience made its debut in the American marketplace.

But thanks to a curious newspaper editor, the northwest Missouri town of Chillicothe can claim the distinction of being the first place in the world where sliced bread was sold to the public 75 years ago this month.

Kathy Stortz Ripley, editor of the Constitution-Tribune, was incredulous when she came upon a news story dated July 7, 1928, announcing that the Chillicothe Baking Co. was now marketing wrapped loaves of sliced bread to local grocery stores.

"I read the story and thought, `This is incredible,' " said Ripley, who was researching Chillicothe's history for a book. "I couldn't believe something this big I hadn't heard of before."

An accompanying ad trumpeted: "Announcing: The Greatest Forward Step in the Baking Industry Since Bread was Wrapped -- Sliced Kleen Maid Bread."

But the boast is not without controversy. Battle Creek, Mich., the nation's cereal capital, also claims to be the home of sliced bread. But that claim, so far, seems half-baked. When pressed this month, Battle Creek's historians were unable to produce proof.

Ripley took her find to Livingston County Library Director Karen Hicklin, who identified the home of the defunct Chillicothe Bakery as a brick building now housing an electronics supply shop. Sadly, the bread slicer was junked years ago.

Hicklin eventually found old-timers who described how the bulky machine, invented by itinerant Iowa jeweler Otto Rohwedder, raised and lowered its steel blades and stuffed the sliced loaves into wax-paper wrappers.

"I thought, `How in the world could anything like this be forgotten?' " Hicklin said.

How indeed. Although credited with the invention, Otto Rohwedder is all but lost to history. Even the Smithsonian's American History Museum lacks information on the origins of sliced bread.

And yet, few inventions have so monumentally capitalized on the consumer's love of convenience.

Sliced bread saved homemakers hours of drudgery. It put toasters in every home. And it resulted in millions of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

"What could be easier than to reach into a wrapped loaf of bread and pull out a slice?" said Mark Dirkes, a spokesman for Interstate Bakeries Corp. in Kansas City, which now owns Wonder Bread.

The popularity of sliced bread eventually reduced Rohwedder to a footnote. By 1930, Rohwedder had sold his patent. Inventors and bakers improved upon his clunky machine.

Wonder Bread, which already wrapped its loaves, built its own machines and used delivery trucks to market sliced bread across the nation.

In fact, said Dirkes, "Sliced bread is the first innovation Wonder Bread used to build its national brand."

The bright, balloon-imprinted wrappers of Wonder-Cut Bread advertised "Sliced" in big letters. Ad campaigns featured smiling families packing sandwiches for picnics.

Soon every new innovation of convenience was being touted as the "greatest thing since sliced bread."

But the true story begins in Chillicothe at M.F. Bench's Chillicothe Baking Co.

Bob Staton, now in his 80s, remembers the machine, about 10-feet long with a "bunch of blades that swung up and swung down" making slices less than an inch wide.

Initially, many bakers rejected the invention, saying the bread would fall apart and grow stale too fast. They contended consumers didn't care whether their bread loaves were sliced.

Rohwedder labored over his invention more than 13 years before any bakers offered to give it a shot.

Several references say Rohwedder first took his machine to Battle Creek. The Battle Creek Visitor and Convention Bureau on its Web site brags that Rohwedder "began making and selling pre-cut loaves of bread" at a Battle Creek bakery. But a spokeswoman for the Battle Creek bureau conceded its source was a short reference found on the Internet.

George Livingston, a history researcher for the Willard Library in Battle Creek, said, "I've looked into it and I don't find any indication of this man's (Rohwedder) presence on the local scene."

The Battle Creek historical museum found a reference to a Battle Creek Bread Wrapping Machine Co. But it's dated 1930, which is two years after the Chillicothe Baking Co. sliced bread.

That makes Chillicothe's claim, at least for now, the best.

The Constitution-Tribune's July 7, 1928, news story managed to capture the significance of sliced bread.

"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."

Sometime during the Great Depression, Chillicothe baker M.F. Bench got out of the business and became Chillicothe's superintendent of streets. In 1943, Bench was quoted saying he'd always known the bread slicer would "be outstanding among improvements of that decade."

In January 1943, at the height of World War II, the government ordered bakeries to stop slicing bread. The country needed airplanes more than it needed bread-slicing blades.

The ban did not go over well. It was lifted three months later.

A story March 9, 1943, in the Constitution-Tribune announced the lifting of the ban under a headline that read: "Mrs. Housewife Can Relieve Herself of Troublesome Task."

The story noted that sliced bread was first sold commercially in Chillicothe.

So why hasn't Chillicothe capitalized on its fame?

One reason is that the memory faded in the decades after the Chillicothe Baking Co. closed.

A beer bottler bought the bakery building and dumped what he thought was a pile of junk in 1960. Only later did he learn it was Rohwedder's bread slicer.

Local tourism officials agree it's a great story. But they don't have the bread slicer, so there's nothing for tourists to look at.

Still, Ripley, the editor, would like to see something done. After all, other Missouri towns crow about something: Hannibal claims Mark Twain, Marceline claims Walt Disney, Laclede claims John J. Pershing and St. Joseph claims the Pony Express.

"It's hard to believe sliced bread was just invented in 1928 -- and that it was invented here," she said.

To reach Paul Wenske, consumer affairs reporter, call (816) 234-4454 or send e-mail to pwenske@kcstar.com
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