Sliced bread has long been used as a benchmark to compare a plethora of new products, clever inventions and, in general, anything exhibiting ingenious concepts. However, few people knew or had at least remembered the origins of sliced bread. For it was in Chillicothe, Mo., that a baker introduced the world's first sliced bread to the buying public.
(Reprinted from Dateline: Livingston County – A Look at Local History, Volume 2. Written by Catherine Stortz Ripley; Printed by Walsworth Publishing Company, 2007)
Sliced bread has long been used as a benchmark to compare a plethora of new products, clever inventions and, in general, anything exhibiting ingenious concepts. However, few people knew or had at least remembered the origins of sliced bread. For it was in Chillicothe, Mo., that a baker introduced the world’s first sliced bread to the buying public. Details now known about that July 7, 1928 event would have likely remained buried had it not been for the first “DATELINE — Livingston County” history book published in 2001. While doing research on microfilm for the book, editor Catherine Stortz Ripley stumbled across the July 6, 1928 announcement in the Constitution-Tribune stating that sliced bread would be on the market the following day. A full-page advertisement was also published listing the grocery stores which would sell this new type of bread. (The 1928 story and advertisement are printed below). Thanks to publicity — which even touched far away countries after this “rediscovery” — Ripley learned of Richard Rohwedder, whose father, Otto F. Rohwedder, was the inventor of the bread slicing machine. Richard was living in Arkansas and had a scrapbook filled with documents about his father’s invention. He shared the scrapbook with Ripley during a visit to Chillicothe in 2003. This was the first time he had been to Chillicothe since 1928 when he had the honor of feeding the first loaf of bread through his father’s bread slicing machine. The bread slicing machine was an invention that no one knew they needed. But Rohwedder, originally from Davenport, Iowa, had been working on it since 1912 as a sideline hobby to his St. Joseph, Mo., jewelry store business, according to several sources, including the Wall Street Journal. Most bakers had scoffed at the idea of sliced bread, believing that pre-cut bread would dry out too fast. Yet, Rohwedder remained convinced that he was onto something big. In 1915, after falling ill with pneumonia, Rohwedder’s doctor told him to stop working because he had only a year to live. He sold his interest in the jewelry store and moved back to Davenport, Iowa, in 1916. But, he continued to perfect his plans for a bread slicing machine and was determined to make an impact on the baking industry. In 1918 a factory in Monmouth, Ill, had just started the manufacture Rohwedder’s first bread slicer when it caught fire and burned to the ground. All blue prints of the bread slicer were destroyed and it was not until 1928 that Rohwedder was able to obtain the necessary finances to once again start the manufacture of bread slicers. In July 1928, Marion F. “Frank” Bench ordered one of Rohwedder’s slicers for Chillicothe Baking Company. This would prove to be at least the second venture between the baker and Rohwedder as the two had already collaborated on the development of a bread display rack and obtained a patent on that rack on July 6, 1926. Chillicothe: A Demonstration Town In 1928 the baking industry was ripe for something new and Chillicothe provided the right environment to launch a totally new concept. Chillicothe was a typical small community and it was felt that small town people would be less receptive to a new idea than people in larger towns and cities. It was also reported that Chillicothe Baking Company had lost its market stronghold. Such a situation offered handicaps which made the demonstration a real test. The results were astounding. Bread sales at Chillicothe Baking Company reportedly increased by 2000 percent within 20 weeks. Sliced bread was here to stay and the baking industry was beating a path to Rohwedder’s door. Over the course of the next 14 months, Rohwedder took orders for more than 230 bread slicing machines from bakeries throughout the country. Production capabilities were taxed and Rohwedder could not keep up with the orders. Richard Rohwedder, upon his visit to Chillicothe in 2003, said he recalled his father taking the family to the river and spending nights on a boat to escape calls from disgruntled bakers who had not yet received their bread slicing machines. The slicer truly hit the big time in 1930 when Continental Baking adopted it for “Wonder Bread,” a household word in the Depression. By 1933, about 80 percent of the bread sold was pre-sliced. Rohwedder, however, never became affluent or famous. Due to the stock market crash of 1929, necessary finances to continue the manufacture of the bread slicer all but disappeared. Rohwedder was forced to sell his patent to the Bettendorf Co. in order to see his dream fulfilled. In so doing he lost all rights, but he did live long enough to see the world accept sliced bread. Rohwedder died in a Michigan rest home in 1960, at the age of 80. Machine, Photographs at Smithsonian Records on file at the Smithsonian Institution indicate that the first bread slicer — the one at Chillicothe Baking Company — was used until it “fell apart.” Rohwedder’s second slicer, which was used at Korn’s Bakery, in Davenport, Iowa, was later donated to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian also has several photographs relating to sliced bread, including one which shows baker Bench at his bakery with the bread slicing machine in the foreground, dated 1928. This photograph appears on the cover of this book. Chillicothe Baking Company’s history dates back to the fall of 1916 when Frank Bench built a bakery building at 433 Martin street. About a year later, he constructed an addition to front on Clay Street. In 1920, a Bench Bakery advertisement stated that the bakery was turning out more than 10 tons of bread each week. In 1921 Bench erected a building at First and Elm streets and moved his bakery there. He went to great lengths to create a state-of-the-art facility and consulted with leading baking experts. He also began selling Kleen-Maid Bread. A newspaper advertisement announcing the grand opening of Chillicothe Baking Company, stated that the facility was a “scientific bakery” and “a 20th century achievement.” Little did Bench know at the time that his bakery would become home to a concept that totally revolutionized the way bread was sold. Bench, however, did not stay in the baking business. The bakery closed in 1931 and Bench was later hired by the city of Chillicothe as street commissioner. Chillicothe: The Home of Sliced Bread Since what has been considered the “rediscovery” of sliced bread Chillicothe has received widespread media attention. In addition to it being reported on an international wire news service, it was a feature in “U.S. News and World Report” and was the subject of a “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” illustration. Community members have also marketed Chillicothe as “The Home of Sliced Bread.” A historical marker was placed at the former site of Chillicothe Baking Company, a mural painted on a downtown wall in recognition of Chillicothe being the Home of Sliced Bread and an Internet website created for Chillicothe’s slice of history. The city of Chillicothe has also officially adopted as it slogan “The Home of Sliced Bread.” These are just a few developments since 2001. One thing has remained constant, though. Sliced bread is still used as a benchmark to compare new products and ideas. Only now, however, Chillicothe occasionally receives some of its due recognition.