Over the past century or so, innovation is gradually becoming a more dominant factor in our world. However, despite the increasing presence and influence innovations have on our everyday lives, none of them made it into our language – save one: sliced bread. We often hear statements like “it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread!” But have you ever stopped to ask yourself how this seemingly simple innovation managed to become the benchmark for future inventions? A closer look at the history of sliced bread may shed some light on this question.
In the early years of the 20th century, Otto Frederick Rohwedder had a revolutionary idea: why not sell bread that is already sliced?! A Jeweler by profession, Rohwedder had little to do with the baking industry, but living in a small town in Iowa, right in the middle of the bread basket of America, he was no stranger to it.
In 1912, he decided to implement his vision and started to develop a machine that would automatically slice bread. As his project advanced, he soon realized that slicing bread created a new problem – the multiple surfaces of the sliced bread made it hard to keep it from going stale. It was 16 years later that he completed developing a bread slicer that not only sliced the bread, but also wrapped it in wax paper to keep it fresh.
Although many bakers had their doubts about this strange machine, the first Rohwedder Bread Slicer was sold after 16 years in 1928. And by July that same year, the first loaf of pre-sliced bread went on shelves in Chillicothe, Missouri. Soon after, in 1930, a company called Wonder Bread started marketing sliced bread nationwide.
Sliced bread saved time and effort for consumers and made it easier to reach for a second and third slice, increasing comfort and consumption. It also gave a boost to pop-up toasters, which had been languishing on the shelves since 1926, as well as to spreads such as peanut butter and jam.
Slice a piece
So, what is it about this invention that earned it its unique place? Was it the unveiling of such a dominant need that was latent for so many years? Was it the fact that even one of the oldest, most basic products in the world can could be reinvented? Was it the immense success of an idea that is so simple it seems almost obvious in hindsight? Or was it the fact that even such an iconic invention still took almost two decades to develop and implement?
Whatever the historic answer may be, there is much to learn from the story of sliced bread. It is a story of a man and an idea – a story that turns out to be far more complicated than you might expect. It paved the path for future inventions. It involved insight, challenge, creativity and perseverance – much like the story of any successful innovation.
So whatever you spread on your bread – peanut butter & jelly, cream cheese or humus – tell us what you think made this innovation resonate so loudly in our collective minds.