CHILLICOTHE, MO (RNN) - Happy birthday, sliced bread, which today celebrates 83 straight years as the best thing ever.
On July 7, 1928, a baker in Chillicothe, MO, who was so broke he had nothing to lose, took a chance on a wild idea. Frank Bench, who owned the nearly bankrupt Chillicothe Bakery, fired up a power-driven, multi-bladed, bread-slicing gizmo and started selling loaves of sliced bread over the counter.
The idea that was so good it set the benchmark for all ideas to follow was actually a pretty tough sell straight out of the gate. Otto Rohwedder, who lived not far from Chillicothe in Saint Joseph, MO, invented his bread-slicing machine around 1912 and shopped it to investors and bakers alike for almost 15 years, receiving nothing but scorn.
Naysayers argued that Americans weren't lazy and didn't mind cutting their own bread. And there was no way to slice fresh loaves without crushing and crumbling. Even if you did, bread with all those exposed surfaces would dry out quickly.
But Rohwedder soldiered on, even when a doctor told him he was dying and too sick to work and after a warehouse fire destroyed a prototype machine and the blueprints. He rebuilt, tinkered and never lost faith until finally he and Bench teamed up and started cranking out Kleen Maid Sliced Bread.
Chillicothe, population 9,000, is proud to be the birthplace of sliced bread. Ed Douglas, a retired banker and chairman of the city's Sliced Bread Committee said the little town in rural Missouri was the perfect place to test the new product.
"Missouri's the Show-Me State," he said. "People here are hard-headed and not easily convinced."
If sliced bread could make it there, it could make it anywhere.
Bench practiced aggressive marketing. He took out a full-page ad in the local paper announcing "The greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped," and acknowledging that "the idea of sliced bread may be startling to some people."
The Constitution-Tribune followed with a news story that was both glowing and prophetic: "The housewife can well experience a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows. So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome."
The article went on to explain for the first time the process of opening the wrapper at one end, taking out as many slices as one needed, and resealing the package - with a pin - to retard spoilage.
Cynical Missourians were sold. They lined up around the block, Bench's sales shot up 2,000 percent in the first three months, and the bakery was saved. Orders for Rohwedder's machine soared. Not long after, Wonder Bread took the product national.
The phenomenon of uniformly sliced bread begat more enduring wonders: the toaster, the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and a colorful figure of speech that for Douglas, chairman of the Sliced Bread Committee and proud Chillicothian, embodies the spirit of innovation.
"Nobody says, 'Hey, that's the greatest thing since the iPod, the cell phone or the computer,'" he said. "Americans are known for being creative and industrious, and our sliced bread story says it all."
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