Notes from the Director: "The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread" :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Arthur Molella, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

Who hasn’t heard the phrase "the best thing since sliced bread"? This month’s food theme leads me to think about the technology behind one of man’s oldest and most basic sources of nourishment--bread, the staff of life and ancient symbol of human sustenance. And it also brings back some vivid childhood memories of visiting my cousins, the Di Rienzos, at their bakery in Binghamton, New York. I looked forward to the times I could ride with them on their truck as they delivered loaves of Italian bread and rolls to shops and schools in their area. The pre-dawn aroma of fresh baked bread remains with me to this day. (Not ones to forget where they came from, my cousins lovingly maintained their original truck, now grandly displayed in the parking lot in front of the bakery. How did they get it to balance like that?)

We must have delivered hundreds of loaves each day, and I always wondered how a middling-sized bakery could turn out so much bread. The answer of course lies in mechanization.

The making of bread is one of the oldest food technologies, going as far back as the Neolithic era, coeval and linked with the brewing of beer. It was also one of the first food products to succumb to automatic machinery, from the mass production and bleaching of flour to kneading the dough, baking in continuous ovens, and finally slicing and wrapping the bread. Much of the mechanization derived from Europe in the 19th century but peaked in the American Midwest during the 1920s and 1930s.

Bread-making technology spawned many inventions and patents, the bread-slicer being one of the later, but important, lines of innovation. While the earliest bread-cutting devices using parallel blades appeared in America in the 1860s, they sat on the shelf for decades, awaiting the introduction of other machines capable of producing loaves of uniform shape, size, and consistency--one of the main challenges to automated food production is the need to impose a fairly rigid, machine-friendly form on basically shapeless organic material. (The mass marketing of meat involved surmounting the same sort of obstacles, as former Lemelson Fellow Roger Horowitz illustrates in his book Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation.)

The first effective bread-slicing machine was invented by Iowa-born Otto Frederick Rohwedder and put into service in 1928 by the Chillicothe (Missouri) Baking Company (the local paper ran a front page story on it). By the 1930s, pre-sliced bread was fully commercialized, and standardization was reinforced by other inventions that required uniform slices, such as toasters. Use of the common phrase "the best thing since sliced bread" as a way of hyping a new product or invention may have come into use based on an advertising slogan for Wonder Bread, the first commercial manufacturer of pre-wrapped, pre-sliced bread. With such products rapidly penetrating the American home, automated bread-making was not only an invention benchmark, but also a key indicator of the mechanization of daily life from the 1930s on.

The mechanization of food is a highly complex and delicate process with limited tolerances, because the product eventually has to be assimilated by human beings. Or so you would think. Like so many modern food products, machine-made bread eventually became almost wholly artificial, bearing little resemblance to the look, feel, and taste of the handmade variety--so much so that manufacturers felt compelled to inject it with artificial vitamins to restore food value. Bread became soft, sponge-like, and very white; when poked and pressed, the loaf popped strangely back into shape. Endowed with such perhaps unexpected qualities, it found other applications. For instance, while bread had been used since the 17th century to clean the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Wonder Bread proved to be an especially effective sponge in the most recent restoration of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

With things going so far, it is no surprise that the back-to-nature whole foods movement of recent decades chose to celebrate bread made in the way of earlier generations. People reverted to making their own bread at home, initially kneading and baking by hand, producing loaves of hearty consistency. By the late 1970s, however, bread-making machines gradually began to appear in American homes, becoming popular with health-conscious families. With the most advanced home bread-making machines, all you had to do was toss in the ingredients in the morning, and within a few hours out would pop a perfect loaf, barely touched by human hands.

Though I confess I’ve never tried bread from one of those home machines, I’m sure it tastes good. It also helped ease the craving for something "homemade" for people with increasingly busy lives. Even as we seek a new balance in our foodways, mechanized food, I am sure, will always be with us.

Best regards till next month,
Arthur Molella
Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

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