Friday, November 7, 2014

Fun Friday Facts #94: What Was the Greatest Thing BEFORE Sliced Bread?

It’s Friday again, and you know what that means – it’s time for another Fun Friday Facts! As some of you will be aware, I sometimes ask my readers to suggest a topic for this column. Reader @VikingtotheMax (aka my friend Mark) wanted to know, “What was the greatest thing BEFORE sliced bread?”

If I had to guess, I would have said it was latex condoms, which were invented in the early 1920s, several years before sliced bread, but I would’ve been wrong. The greatest thing before sliced bread was wrapped bread. Yes, I know, it’s rather anticlimactic.

But etymologists (those are the scientists who study the origins of words and phrases, not the ones who study bugs – those are entomologists) believe that the phrase “greatest thing since sliced bread” refers to a back page ad placed in the daily newspaper in Chillicothe, Missouri on 6 July, 1928. The ad touted the Chillicothe Baking Company’s new bread slicing machine, which it purchased from Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, the visionary who invented pre-sliced bread. The ad claimed that the advent of pre-sliced bread (or as we call it now, pre-sliced bread) was the “greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” The first recorded use of the idiom occurred in a 1952 interview comedian Red Skelton (if you know who that is, you might be too old for the Internet) gave to the Salisbury Times, a Maryland newspaper, in reference to the newfangled invention of the day, television.

It was only after many setbacks that Rohwedder finally managed to sell his bread-slicing machine to the Chillicothe Baking Company in 1928. He first invented the automated bread slicer in 1912, but bakers of the era rejected the device, claiming that customers would want to be doing their own bread-slicing, please and thank you. Clearly, Rohwedder was ahead of his time.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Rohwedder lost not only the blueprints but also the prototype for his bread slicing machine in a fire in 1917. No quitter, Rohwedder was willing to jump right back on the sliced bread horse, but couldn’t convince investors to fund the revival of the project. It wasn’t until ten long years later, in 1927, that Rohwedder was finally able to produce another working model of his bread-slicing machine, but by this time, the world was ready.

This may be the very bread-slicing machine in question.

Sliced bread quickly became popular, as customers loved the convenient, uniform slices. It would take another innovator, baker Alexander Taggart, to distribute sliced bread on a nationwide scale. Taggart was a baker from the Isle of Man. His father had been a baker before him, and his father was a baker before him. Taggart immigrated to the United States after the Civil War, starting his first bakery in 1869. He teamed up with another baker, Burton Parrott, to open Parrott-Taggart Baking Company. They would go on to found the United States Baking Company, which would later merge with the National Biscuit Company, to form Nabisco. Though Taggart and Parrott continued to sell their baked goods under their own name, it would be this affiliation with Nabisco that would help them make history.

On 24 May 1921, Parrot-Taggart Baking Company introduced Taggart’s Wonder Bread, today known simply as Wonder Bread. In 1930, thanks to Mr. Rohwedder and his stubborn refusal to give up on his dream of eating pre-sliced bread in spite of long odds and much criticism, Wonder Bread became the first loaf of sliced bread to be distributed nationally.