Otto Frederick Rohwedder’s Greatest Thing

On this day in 1928, the first loaf from Otto Frederick Rohwedder’s automatic bread slicing machine is sold by the Chillicothe Baking Company, in Chillicothe, MO. Within a year, Rohwedder was scrambling to meet orders from bakeries demanding his slicing machines, and exhorting bakers that “A good loaf, a proper presentation of sliced bread to the grocers and a truthful, clean advertising program can . . . build his business far beyond what he could do without sliced bread.”

Inventor Otto Frederick Rohwedder was born July 6, 1880, in Des Moines, IA to parents Claus and Elizabeth. The youngest of five children to survive their Germanic childhood, he grew up in Davenport, Iowa, and entered the Northern Illinois College of Ophthalmology and Otology in Chicago, where he received a degree in optics in 1900. Realizing most folks suffered from poor eyesight and gullibility, Rohwedder then pursued a career as a jeweler, opening and operating three jewelry stores of his own in St. Joseph, MO until 1916, when he sold his stores and moved back to his hometown of Davenport, convinced that he had an even more brilliant idea.

Rohwedder’s brainstorm was to spare hausfraus across the nation from the drudgery and frustration of hand-slicing, and often mutilating, their family’s loaves; he began development of a revolutionary bread slicer that would automatically cut loaves into slices for consumers, changing sandwich-making forever. He worked on several prototypes, including one that held a sliced loaf together with metal pins, inadvertently creating mushy, disgusting croutons in the process. This model and several others proved unsuccessful, but Rohwedder’s biggest challenge came in late 1917 when a mysterious factory fire destroyed his latest design blueprints at a Monmouth, IL, concern that had agreed to build his first slicing devices.

It would take several years for him to recoup his losses, but Rohwedder continued to make refinements to his design and found work as an investment and security agent, whatever that means. Also in the course of his research he realized he would need to find a way to prevent a loaf of sliced bread from going stale. By 1927, Rohwedder had devised an ingenious solution to this problem: a machine that would slice the bread and also wrap it!

Simultaneous to Otto’s newest notion, in 1926, the pop-up toaster was just beginning to catch on, and catch fire, in American households. This helped give Rohwedder just the boost he needed to get his latest version of the bread slicer off the ground and he filed for a patent on his new slicing-and-wrapping device, U.S. Pat. No. 1,867,377, and sold his first machine to the Chillicothe Baking Company, in 1928. Customers loved “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread” so well the first machine wore out in six months.

In 1929, just as he was getting his Davenport-based Mac-Roh Sales and Manufacturing Company up and running, bad fortune struck again; the Great Depression hit. Rohwedder was forced to sell rights to his invention, and Micro-Westco Co. of Bettendorf, IA, purchased the machines and hired Rohwedder to serve as a vice president and sales manager within its newly formed Rohwedder Bakery Machine Division. Sliced bread became more and more popular, but sales skyrocketed nationally beginning in 1930 when Wonder Bread began marketing and promoting sliced bread using its own specially designed equipment. By 1933, bakeries were selling more sliced bread than un-sliced bread.

After 21 more thrill-packed years in the sliced-bread business, in 1951, Rohwedder, retired from Micro-Westco Co. at 71, and moved with his wife Carrie to Albion, Michigan, where their daughter Margaret (Rohwedder) Steinhauer and his sister Elizabeth Pickerill lived. Rohwedder died in Concord, Michigan, on November 8, 1960. He was buried at Riverside Cemetery in Albion, where, in his honor, countless cheerful picnic-goers gleefully chew sandwiches above the remains of “The Father of Sliced Bread.”

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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