We have all likely heard at some point someone saying, "this is the best thing since sliced bread!" But do you know how much time has passed since sliced bread became the best thing? It might surprise you.
Sliced bread has been around for less than a century. The first automatically sliced commercial loaves were produced on July 6,1928 and sold the following day, July 7, 1928 in Chillicothe, Missouri, using a machine invented by Otto Rohwedder, an Iowa-born, Missouri-based jeweler.
While an advertisement claimed sliced bread was, “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped,” customers were wary. According to the author of Why Do Donuts Have Holes?: Fascinating Facts About What We Eat And Drink, (sounds like a doodle topic) the loaves failed to fly off the shelves, partly “because they were sloppy looking.”
Aesthetics aside, this sliced bread was part of the pre-preservative era, so it went stale faster than its counterpart. Rohwedder came up with a solution of U-shaped pins to hold the loaf together, making it appear whole inside its packaging, according to the New York Times. Another ad offered instructions: 1) “Open wrapper at one end,” 2) “Pull out pin,” 3) “Remove as many slices as desired."
Rohwedder’s original bread slicer fell apart after six months of heavy use (thought the second held strong and is on loan at the Smithsonian.) “The idea of sliced bread may be startling to some people,” a 1928 story in the Chillicothe newspaper acknowledged. “Certainly it represents a definite departure from the usual manner of supplying the consumer with baked loaves.”
But, after a few improvements to the slicing machine, loaves became nicer-looking and sliced bread earned its place in homes across the country. By World War II, Americans were so hooked on the convenience that a wartime conservation measure meant to save the hundred tons of steel that went into slicing machines each year—created a nationwide shortage of sliced bread. According to TIME’s 1943 account, the ban on sliced bread caused as much grumbling as gas rationing did.
The unpopular ban was lifted just two months after it went into effect. The New York Times marked the occasion with a headline, and it wasn’t long before Americans were using sliced bread as a point of comparison for greatness, hence the saying.