So it is that at least once a week my house fills with the smell of baking bread. And so it is that when I want bread, I get a bread knife and slice however much I want off of the now always present loaf. This morning as I was slicing I watched the knife controlled by my hand, mind you, begin a fairly thick slice at the top and finish the cut much thinner at the bottom.
That was when I realized the true meaning of the expression -- "This is the greatest thing since sliced bread." It's not about the bread. It's about the manner in which it is sliced. Specifically, the expression refers to machines doing a better job of slicing than you or I could ever manage. I'm not going to buy one nor do I even want one but a bread slicing machine clearly is a great thing.
Speaking of bread slicing machines, Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, invented the first loaf-at-a-time bread slicing machine in 1928. Imagine the sandwiches before Otto's gift to the world. The first commercial use of the machine was by the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri. Their product, "Kleen Maid Sliced Bread", was a success but not as big a success as that of a company in Battle Creek, Michigan. The Battle Creek folks advertised their sliced bread as, "the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped." Their motto leaves us thinking that the greatest thing before sliced bread was wrapped bread. While few now know of the food industries in Chillicothe, Missouri, Battle Creek has given us the Kellogg Company, Post Cereals, General Foods Corporation, and Kraft Foods.
Apparently a major flaw in Otto's bread slicing phenomena was that as soon as the loaf was in slices it fell to pieces. Enter St. Louis baker Gustav Papendick whose gift to the world was keeping the sliced loaf intact until it could be wrapped. His first attempts involved rubber bands and metal pins. Finally he created a cardboard tray into which the slices were placed. Then the loaf could be wrapped. This paved the way, of course, for bread wrapping machines and for Wonder Bread to, in 1930, sell wrapped, sliced bread on a national level.
Only after all of those things had happened could people start saying, "This is the greatest thing since sliced bread." Sadly, sliced bread can never be it's own greatest thing. Such is the tragedy of language.
An odd but not surprising historical note: On January 18, 1943, the United States government as part of a World War II cost cutting effort banned sliced bread. Public protest was so overwhelming that, on March 8, 1943, the ban was lifted. Prohibition's ban on alcohol lasted far longer than the ban on sliced bread.