That Time When America Banned Sliced Bread
Just think about it. To make a sandwich all you need to do is open a bag and remove the required number of pre-cut slices. No need to take out the whole loaf, find a knife and saw into it resulting in uneven slices and broken edges. It’s almost funny that it took humans more than two thousand years to figure that out. Now imagine someone trying to take away this great invention.
The United States Government attempted to do that in 1943. The Second World War was in full swing, and America, like most Allied countries, was trying to conserve resources for the war effort. Food was one of them.
An ad for sliced bread by the Continental Baking Company, one of first bakeries to sell pre-sliced bread.
The War Food Administration was created exactly for this purpose—to oversee the production and distribution of food to meet war and essential civilian needs. Its most important job was to prevent food wastage. Claude R. Wickard was at that time the head of the Administration, as well as the Secretary of Agriculture. He got this great idea—ban sliced bread because it was making Americans eat more.
The Greatest Invention
Sliced bread was invented by Otto Frederick Rohwedder, an ophthalmologist turned jeweler who owned three jewelry stores in St. Joseph, Missouri. It was perhaps while selling earrings and necklaces to women, Rohwedder overheard housewives discussing the burdensome and tiresome job of slicing bread.
As early as 1912, Rohwedder had a prototype ready but he had trouble deciding on the thickness of the slices. So Rohwedder put together a brief questionnaire and placed it as an ad in several large newspapers. Over the course of a few months, more than 30,000 housewives responded with their choice of slice thickness. Four years later, Rohwedder sold his jewelry business and with the funds set up a workshop in an abandoned warehouse to manufacture his machine. Unfortunately, in 1917, a fire broke out at the workshop and destroyed his prototype along with hundreds of blueprints and thousands of hours of dedicated effort.
The fire set Rohwedder back by at least 10 years, but eventually, in 1928, Rohwedder had a fully working machine ready that not only sliced the bread but wrapped it up as well.
Rohwedder’s original patent illustrations.
A bread slicing machine at Chillicothe Baking Company. To this day Chillicothe calls itself the “home of sliced bread”.
The Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, was the first to use Rohwedder’s bread slicing machine. Within weeks, bread sales shot through the roof. Americans were eating bread like never before. Within five years, nearly every reputable bakery in the country had bread slicing machines installed in its production room, and 80% of the bread produced in America was sliced.
Eat Less Bread
In an effort to conserve food, Britain had launched a campaign during the First World War encouraging people to eat less bread and use home-grown or substitute ingredients in their baking.
Authorities advised people to eat slowly and only when they were absolutely hungry, and not to feed stray dogs.
In order to suppress bread consumption even more, the Ministry of Food banned the sale of newly baked bread and ordered that bread should be at least 12 hours old when it was sold. The idea was that stale bread would be less appetizing, and so people would eat less of it.
British propaganda posters during World War 1.
Perhaps Claude R. Wickard felt uncomfortable telling people to ration a staple food item like bread, so he came up with an excuse for his ban of sliced bread. When the ban took effect on January 18, 1943, The New York Times published the official explanation—“the ready-sliced loaf must have a heavier wrapping than an unsliced one if it is not to dry out."
This heavier wrapping would require the paper to be waxed, Wickard explained and since America was focused on defeating the enemy, the country had better things to do than wax paper. And since bread wrapped without this heavy wax-paper would dry out more quickly, housewives would likely throw away the stale slices leading to wastage of wheat.
While wheat conservation made sense, the US, at that time, had a huge reserve of grain—thanks to a great crop—that would have lasted for two years even if no new wheat was harvested over that span.
If wheat conservation didn’t appear to be the rationale behind the ban, then perhaps it was the conservation of metal. The electric bread slicing machines were made of steel and many companies which manufactured metal goods had their operations suspended during the war, so that the precious raw materials could be used to manufacture tanks and artillery instead. However, new bread slicing machines were rarely being produced and any benefit gained from saving metal by suspending manufacture or repairing of bread slicing machines would have been marginal. Besides, the ban could have been directed towards the machines instead of their product.
Whatever might have been the reason, the ban was poorly thought out, and didn’t last long. The outcry over the lack of sliced bread, a product Americans could just not live without, was tremendous. One distraught housewife wrote a letter of protest to the New York Times.
I should like to let you see how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household. My husband and four children are all in a rush before, during and after breakfast. Without ready-sliced bread I must do the slicing for toast — two pieces for each one — that’s ten. For their lunches I must cut by hand at least twenty slices, for two sandwiches apiece. Afterward I make my own toast.
Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry. They look less appetizing than the baker’s neat, even pieces. Haven’t the bakers already their bread-slicing machines and for thousands of loaves?Finally, on March 8, 1943, the ban was lifted. In a statement issued to the public, the War Production Board confessed that “savings are not as much as we expected”, and that there was sufficient wax paper in the hands of baker to wrap sliced bread for four months.
Sources: Archival Ramblings / Priceonomics / Wikipedia / Culinary Lore