Who hasn’t heard the phrase, “the best thing since sliced bread?” Bread is one of our oldest and most basic sources of nourishment … and just the mention of it brings back vivid childhood memories of visiting my cousins, the Di Rienzos, at their bakery in Binghamton, New York. I looked forward to the times I could ride with them on their truck as they delivered loaves of fresh Italian bread and rolls to shops and schools in their area. The pre-dawn aroma of fresh baked bread remains with me to this day. We must have delivered hundreds of loaves each day, and I always wondered how a middling-sized bakery could turn out so much bread. The answer of course lies in mechanization.
The making of bread is one of the oldest food technologies, going as far back as the Neolithic era, coeval and linked with the brewing of beer. It was also one of the first food products to succumb to automatic machinery, from the mass production and bleaching of flour, kneading of the dough, baking in continuous ovens, and, finally, to the slicing and wrapping of the bread. Much of the mechanization derived from Europe in the nineteenth century but peaked in the American Midwest during the 1920s and 1930s.
Bread-making technology spawned many inventions and patents, like the bread-slicer. While the earliest bread-cutting devices using parallel blades appeared in America in the 1860s, they sat on the shelf for decades, awaiting the introduction of other machines capable of producing loaves of uniform shape, size, and consistency.
A page from a 1937 cookbook in the Frances S. Baker Product Cookbooks Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
The first effective bread-slicing machine was invented by Iowa-born Otto Frederick Rohwedder and put into service in 1928 by the Chillicothe (Missouri) Baking Company (the local paper ran a front page story on it!). By the 1930s, pre-sliced bread was fully commercialized, and standardization was reinforced by other inventions that required uniform slices, such as toasters. The common phrase, “the best thing since sliced bread,” as a way of hyping a new product or invention may have come into use based on an advertising slogan for Wonder Bread, the first commercial manufacturer of pre-wrapped, pre-sliced bread. With such products rapidly penetrating the American home, automated bread-making was not only an invention benchmark, but also a key indicator of the mechanization of daily life from the 1930s onward.
Machine-made bread eventually became almost wholly artificial, bearing little resemblance to the look, feel, and taste of the hand-made variety—so much so that manufacturers felt compelled to inject it with artificial vitamins to restore food value. And the soft, sponge-like, and very white “bread” found some unexpected applications. For instance, while bread had been used since the 17th century to clean the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Wonder Bread proved to be an especially effective sponge in the most recent restoration of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
With things going so far, it is no surprise that the back-to-nature whole foods movement of recent decades chose to celebrate bread made in the way of earlier generations. People reverted to making their own bread at home, initially kneading and baking by hand, producing loaves of hearty consistency. By the late 1970s, however, bread-making machines began to appear in American homes, and all you had to do was toss in the ingredients and, within a few hours, out would pop a perfect loaf, barely touched by human hands.
Though I confess I never tried bread from one of those home machines, I’m sure it tasted good. It also helped ease the craving for something “homemade” for people with increasingly busy lives. Even as we seek a new balance in our food-ways, mechanized food, I am sure, will always be with us.
Art Molella is Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director of the National Museum of American History’sLemelson Center.
Editor's note: Interested in baking your own home-made bread? Try Julia Child's French bread recipe.