The earliest barley bread appeared in about 10,000 BCE; it was a flatbread less than one inch thick and required no slicing. Later, wheat, and leavening agents were introduced, making much larger loaves that needed to be torn in half by hand or sliced with a knife.
But it took until the 20th century for things to change:
Otto Rohwedder had an idea; however, nobody wanted his machine. The Davenport , Iowa salesman had worked on a device for slicing loaves of bread for more than a decade, but bakers were dubious. They protested that the bread would go stale, that consumers only wanted their loaves whole, or that it just wouldn’t work.
Then in 1928, Frank Bench, who owned a small bakery in Chillicothe, Missouri., decided to give it a try. Richard, Otto’s son who was 13 years old at the time fed the bread through the very peculiar looking machine. It quickly became popular. The ladies liked and wanted it, he recalls, and the sales at Bench’s bakery increased by 2000% in just a few weeks. But there was a problem with the bread drying out. Otto had first tried hatpins which joined several slices to each other. He soon discovered that this method was not practical.
An idea gathered more steam when a St. Louis Baker named Gustav Papendik created a machine that not only sliced the bread but wrapped it, too, keeping the slices from drying out.
The beginning of the 20th century marked a turning point for home kitchens. More than 2/3 of American homes had electricity by the end of the 1920s, and as hired help left for factories or other jobs, home makers looked to electrical appliances like the toaster (invented at least a decade earlier) to ease their kitchen workload.
The bread symbolic of this period was Wonder Bread. This originally unsliced bread was first baked by the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis about 1920. Taggart was later acquired by Continental Baking Company in 1925. Wonder Bread was produced at a full-scale bakery at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and was the sponsor of popular radio programs. In 1941 Wonder Bread was advertised as “enriched” with vitamins and minerals and advertised on children’s radio programs with the tag line in the 50’s – “Wonder Bread Builds Strong Bodies 8 Ways”, In the 1960’s, when backlash arose against overly refined food products, Wonder Bread became a prime target for criticism.
Lately there’s been a movement back toward the old way; artisanal unsliced. The way we try to make bread now gives it a much “wheatier” flavor. Now we are more concerned about the content of our bread as “whole grains” as part of a healthy diet rather than what form it is. White bread has now become a diet “villain.” And no one was ever quite sure how Wonder Bread built bodies 8 ways.
Source: The Greatest Thing, Period. Betsy Querna, U.S. News and World Report, August 15 – 22, 2005
Source: Sliced Bread: The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Edited by Andrew F. Smith, 2007.