“Make me a sandwich,” said Chris Orange, park manager for Buckley Homestead County Park.
Right there, in this office/meeting room/lunch room, he plopped down a round loaf of sourdough bread the diameter of a dinner plate. He slipped a scarred wooden cutting board beneath it and then handed me a bread knife, handle first.
By now I was used to his dramatic reveals, so I played along. I picked up the bread knife and bent over the loaf.
“Hey, man,” he said. “Wash your hands. I don’t know where you’ve been.”
I did, then returned to the loaf, leaning over the thick-crusted sourdough. I sliced it once through the middle, but dull bread knife hacked more than sliced. I showered the board with crumbs.
Once I had it cut through the middle, I put the knife in to start sawing an inch-thick slice.
Chris shook his head. “No, no, that’s too thick. I’m not using it to stuff an exhaust pipe. Thin.” He held up his fingers a half-inch away from one another. “Thin like that. I’ve got some nice pastrami and mustard for it.”
I set to work on the loaf, trying to neatly shave a half-inch slice of bread with a dull knife. I made a mess of it. I steadied the loaf with my free hand and ended up squishing it, the hard crust crinkling apart. After a few minutes, I gave up.
“This knife,” I said, “is a piece of &$#@.”
Chris nodded in agreement. “It is. And the loaf’s too big. And the slices are too thin for clumsy hands.” He plucked the knife from my hand and dropped it onto the table. Then Chris leaned back, lifted a crumpled cotton rag and pulled out another loaf of sourdough bread, still in its plastic and waxed paper packaging. Fresh from Meijer. He pulled off the bread tag and slid it out next to the original loaf, which looked like it just gave birth.
The only difference? The second load was pre-sliced into neat, half-inch sections.
“Always the showman,” I said and pulled out my notebook.
He shrugged. “It’s in my nature. Let me tell you how sliced bread really was the greatest thing since, well, sliced bread,” he said and leaned back in his chair. He put his hands behind his head, looked at the ceiling and here’s what he pontificated…
Sliced bread changed the way we eat.
Not just Americans, but the entire Western world. Before the introduction of the automatic bread slicer, consumers were left to hack away at loaves, producing ragged, irregular bread slices. Too much time to slice, too much time to clean the mess up, and it made for awkward, ugly sandwiches. Imagine feeding a family of four grilled cheeses and having to manually slice every piece? It’s not something we need to imagine because sandwiches as we know them today weren’t so common. Most of our bread eating was the rip-off-a-hunk variety.
Along comes this fellow from Iowa, Otto Rohwedder. He was a jeweler by trade, but a tinkerer by vocation, and he loved to created odd little machines. One invention in particular grabbed his attention: an automatic bread slicer. He instantly recognized the commercial potential of the machine IF he could get it to work. After selling his jewelry business and putting all his finance and efforts into the automatic bread slicer, he finally produced a working prototype. In 1917, he had the funding and a factory.
And then he had a fire.
The prototype, the components, and ALL of Rohwedder’s blueprints burned up faster than Cheech & Chong at a Phish concert. He had to start from scratch and somehow scrap together new funding for another factory. It would take him another decade.
Otto Rohwedder patented the first automatic bread slicer in 1928, adding another nifty feature: automatic wrapping. He created the manufacturing company Mac-Roh Sales & Manufacturing to sell the slicers.
By 1929, in the first dark days of the Great Depression, Mac-Roh sold about $10,000 worth of the machines every day (about $150,000 in 2021). Sliced bread exploded in 1930, when the Continental Baking Company out of Illinois reintroduced its flagship product Wonder Bread, entirely pre-sliced.
Chris said, “We ate more sandwiches, had more toast, started eating jelly and jam…and people simply ate more bread. Why not, since all they needed to do was pluck a slice from the loaf…”
Chris finished his pontificating and leaned back in his chair.
I shrugged. “Okay, easier, neater slices, but does that really make it GREAT. When I think GREAT, I think combustion engine. Antibiotics. The atom bomb.” I paused. “Cottony-soft toilet paper. Deodorant. That’s GREAT.”
Chris nodded. “How about this?” He stood up and walked to a bookshelf. Books of every age on everything from Illinois politics to animal husbandry to weed management. He ran his finger along one low row and then slipped out a manila envelope. He carried it over.
“You’ve seen these, right?” he asked.
He slid out a small stack of thin, gray-green stamps. Two rows had pictures of a tank and the words Ration Stamp No. Each row was numbered 1 through 8. A tank on one, an artillery piece on another. An aircraft carrier on a few. The last one had a fighter plane.
“World War Two ration stamps,” I said.
He nodded. “Four days after Pearl Harbor, America started rationing tires. No one complained. Three weeks later they froze the ENTIRE automobile manufacturing industry. Banned the manufacture of new cars. Gasoline. Flour. Sugar. All rationed. And they were serious about it. They even had special courts set up to punish commodity waste, crimes like going on a sightseeing drive in the country. Can you imagine that today?”
“We were at war,” I said.
Chris rolled his eyes. “Oh hell, we’ve got a disease ravaging the country right now, killed more people than the Spanish flu, and we’ve got people who won’t bother to cover their mouths when they cough. I don’t believe in the good, old days, not really. But in this case, with the rationing and nationwide team work. America really came together.“
“But,” Chris said ominously, reaching back and lifting up the mangled loaf of sourdough bread. “There was one thing, one item that the Office of Price Administration banned that the American people rejected outright. Their protests were so severe that the ban lasted only 60 days. And when the smoke cleared, no government agency would accept the blame for it.”
“For sliced bread?” I asked. “Really?”
“Really. Bakers were slicing bread in secret, some got hit with a thousand dollar fine—$1000 in 1943 was serious money—and they kept on slicing anyway,” Chris said. “Bread knives disappeared. With the metal rationing and wartime manufacturing, people couldn’t get new ones.”
He continued. “Politicians were lax in enforcing the ban, because they would get outed from office. Or strung up. The ban ended when the government realized no one was doing much about it. Sliced bread wasn’t just a luxury anymore. It had evolved into a necessity.”
“Like Prohibition,” I said. “People were going to do it anyway, so they gave it up.”
Chris shrugged. “Kind of. That lasted, what, twelve years? With Hitler goose-stepping across Europe and Hirohito beheading airmen, people still wouldn’t tolerate going back to unsliced bread. Bigger than booze, man. The funniest thing is these billion dollar agencies in charge of rifles, tanks, and howitzers…they were afraid of saying the sliced bread ban was their idea.” Chris laughed. “They’ll take the blame for strategic bombing, but not for the sliced bread ban. It’s nuts.”
“It’s the greatest,” I said
“Of all time,” he said. “And the metaphor ‘The greatest thing since sliced bread‘?”
“The idiom you mean,” I corrected.
“Shut up,” he said. “Idiom then. The idiom came from a series of popular ads newspapers ran in the late-20s and early 30s.”
I thanked Chris for the story and stood up. “I’ll put some nice links in for you,” I said.
“You better. And mention our Fall Fest. That’s coming up,” he said.
“Will do.” I turned to walk out.
“Where you going, man?” he said.
“Nope.” Chris shook his head and pointed at the sliced sourdough bread and then at the refrigerator. “I want my sandwich.”
If you enjoyed this story, check out the Buckley Homestead County Park Facebook page for scheduled events, including its upcoming Fall Fest October 9th and 10th.
Oh, and toss a LIKE Chris’s way. It would make him so happy.