Happy 85th Birthday, Sliced Bread

Originally published on July 11, 2013 5:44 pm

Sliced bread turns 85 years old this month. The Chillicothe Baking Company sold the first wrapped package of sliced bread in history on July 7, 1928.

So what can sliced bread teach us about business?


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From NPR and WBUR in Boston, it's HERE AND NOW. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, in for Robin Young.


And I'm Jeremy Hobson. Microsoft is undergoing a massive restructuring. CEO Steve Ballmer is reordering the software giant into a devices and services-based company. Lisa Brummel, Microsoft's head of HR, says it's the biggest thing the company has ever done.

CHAKRABARTI: Or you could say it's the greatest thing since sliced bread.


HOBSON: I see what you're doing there, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes, because sliced bread turns 85 years old this week. Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, joins us now with more. Hi, Derek.

DEREK THOMPSON: Hi, it's good to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Derek, the sliced bread was first sold in 1928, but the slicer itself was invented in 1912. What took so long?

THOMPSON: Right. So bread has been around for a millennia. But the history of sliced bread, right, takes us back to 1912. And it's Otto Frederick Rohwedder. He's a jeweler in Missouri. He's futzing around in his factory with a bread machine that not only slices bread but also wraps it. And that's really important because as everybody knows who has ever struggled with that little wire thing that you have to tie the plastic bread bag with, sliced bread gets stale really quickly. So invents this prototype that slices and wraps it to seal in the flavor and it burned in a fire in 1912. God, obviously, really did not want us slicing his bread. And it's not until 1928 that he persuades a Missouri baking company to finally take up his invention.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. But did bakers care for the concept of sliced bread?

THOMPSON: No, they did not. It wasn't just the gods who seemed to have not wanted sliced bread. It was, in fact, the bakers too. And, you know, they basically thought that sliced bread looks sloppy. It looked ugly. And so it actually took a second baker, a guy named Gustav Papendick who steps in and helps out his friend, Otto, and says, look, we need to make these sliced loaves look beautiful and in line. And so he helps tweak the machine, and it's that machine that's finally taken up by the bakers.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. So now, of course, sliced bread is everywhere. It's the greatest thing since itself, I guess. But how did it become a national phenomenon?

THOMPSON: Right. So it was Wonder Bread, actually, that took sliced bread national. And it took this sort of - this series of inventions, first with Otto Rohwedder and then with Papendick and then with the fine folks at Wonder Bread nationalizing this concept of sliced bread. And, you know, it wasn't just that Americans were eating more breads. It really changed a lot of other industries. We started eating more spreads. It created this - it eased us into a sandwich culture. And sales of butter and jellies and jams, all of them increased. A lot of economists think specifically because we have easier access to the sliced bread.

CHAKRABARTI: It's interesting because I never really thought of sliced bread as a paradigm shifting moment in the history of innovation in America. But what does the story really tell us about how new products are developed?

THOMPSON: Yeah, it's funny. You know, Americans have this vision of a lonely, independent entrepreneur. You know, this vision of Thomas Edison alone in his workshop and a light bulb goes off in his head and suddenly, aha, he actually invents a light bulb. But the reality is that all invention, from the light bulb to the bread slicer to the computer mouse, to the iPhone, all invention is tweaking. Otto Frederick Rohwedder might be the godfather of the bread slicer, but we might not have sliced bread in the 1920s, 1930s if it wasn't for this other guy, Papendick. And it might not be a national phenomenon by the midcentury if it wasn't for the fine folks at Wonder Bread.

So it takes this chain of innovation, of tweakers who stand on each other's shoulders and help each other out to really give us the products that we consider innovative. It's not these people working alone out of their factories, creating something that's fully formed, like Athena jumping out of Zeus' head. It takes a series of tweaks and innovations to give us what we consider to be the truly most ingenious inventions.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, you know, there's a sandwich on my desk right now. I'll never look at it the same way again. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic, thanks so much for joining us.

THOMPSON: It's good to be here.


THE NEWBEATS: (Singing) And he likes bread and butter. And he likes toast and jam. That's what his baby feeds him. He's her loving man.

CHAKRABARTI: Stick with us. It's HERE AND NOW.


THE NEWBEATS: (Singing) I like bread and butter. I like toast and jam. That's what baby feeds me. I'm her loving man. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.