Chillicothe, Missouri, has an unusual claim to fame: It’s the town where pre-sliced bread first debuted back in 1928. But despite being less than a century old, the origin of this revolutionary pantry staple was almost lost to history.
On the town's main strip there's now a large colorful mural announcing: “Home of sliced bread.” But according to former reporter Catherine Strotz Ripley, less than two decades ago, residents of Chillicothe had no idea they even had this claim to fame. So, as far as Chillicothe is concerned, the 'greatest thing since sliced bread' may be Catherine Strotz Ripley.
It was Otto Rohwedder, a jeweler from Davenport, Iowa, who came up with the idea for a machine that could quickly create a perfect set of slices from a bread loaf. It was a 10-foot-long metal box with a row of sharp blades, but he had a hard time finding anybody who would actually want to use it.
Luckily, Rohwedder reconnected with an old friend, a fellow inventor and entrepreneur named Frank Bench, who happened to run a bakery in Chillicothe, Missouri. Bench agreed to give the machine a shot. They put an ad out in the paper: “The greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped - a fine loaf sold a better way.”
The ad went on: "The idea of sliced bread may be startling to some people. Certainly it represents a definite departure from the usual manner of supplying the consumer with bakers loaves. As one considers this new service one cannot help but be won over to a realization of the fact that here indeed is a type of service which is sound, sensible and in every way a progressive refinement in Bakers bread service."
The next day, on July 7, 1928, sliced bread from Rohwedder’s machine was made available to the world for the first time. Within a fortnight, Ripley says the amount of bread Bench’s bakery sold went up 2,000%. “And bakers were really knocking down his door,” she says.
Within a decade, and despite the twin catastrophes of the Great Depression and World War II, sliced bread quickly became a staple in American households.
Sliced bread wasn’t just a success, it was a revolution. Yet neither of the original men who made it possible got rich off it, and the town of Chillicothe forgot about the central role it played. Sadly, Bench lost his bakery during the Great Depression, while Rohwedder sold his patent rights to the Micro Westco Company.
Decades later, it was almost by accident that the sliced bread revolution that started in Chillicothe began to emerge. While researching for a history book project, Ripley - then the editor for The Chillicothe Constitution Tribune - spent a lot of time looking through the library’s microfilms of old local newspapers. Among the tens of thousands of clips she scrolled through, one story stood out immediately.
“It was just a small headline,” Ripley recalled. “It said: ‘Sliced bread is made here. Chillicothe Baking Co. the first bakers in the world to sell this product to the public.’”
Ripley remained skeptical of the claim, but found it interesting enough that she copied the article and wrote a little blurb about it for the Constitution Tribune. Eventually, she published the finding in her book, “Dateline Livingston County: A Look At Local History,” which came out in 2001.
Everything snowballed from there. The Kansas press picked it up first and eventually the Associated Press spread the news around the world. Suddenly Chillicothe found itself on the map, with something to be truly proud of - yet a little embarrassed that they had let this claim to fame slip from the town's collective memory. But not anymore!
Today, 'Home of Sliced Bread' is the official slogan for the town, and it now hosts an annual Sliced Bread Day on July 7, a celebration made official by the Missouri General Assembly in 2018.