Best thing since sliced bread

Necessity forced my mother to pile all five of her children into the family car with her when she went to town that day. We stayed longer and later than she anticipated. Lunch time came. In an era of few fast few places and not a lot of extra money for eating out anyway, my mom had a practical solution. She bought a package of thick, sliced baloney and a loaf of white bread. She slapped the baloney between a couple pieces of bread and gave us each a sandwich.

The first time I told my husband about that day’s fast food meal he said, “and with a bit of mayo.”

“No. Just baloney and bread.” I said.
To this day I do not think he quite believed me But it is true and although I haven’t eaten white bread or baloney in years, I still remember that sandwich being mighty tasty.

I thought of that loaf of white bread Saturday as we stood before a two-story high mural of a simpler time painted on the entire side of a building in Chillicothe, Mo. The mural declares, “Home of Sliced Bread. We went to the town of 9,500 to visit the original site of pre-sliced loaves of bread.

It all began in 1928, when the Chillicothe Baking Company began using an bread slicing machine invented by Otto Rohwedder. Before that time homemakers had to slice every loaf of bread at home.
According to the historical marker in the town, the bakery’s sale of pre-sliced bread jumped 2,000 percent in just the first couple weeks of sales. With thinner, more readily available slices of bread, people ate more bread and more jams. More bread was sold for quickly fix meals.
When the first slicing machine broke down within the year, the inventor replaced it with an improved version and no one has looked back since then. Literally, for bakers and homemakers across the country, everything else paled in comparison to the impact of sliced bread. Everything else became “the best thing since sliced bread.”
The advent of World War II tested the public’s dependence on sliced bread. In 1943, in order to conserve on materials and resources, the government dictated a return to selling unsliced bread. Sliced bread dried out faster and needed a heavier wrapping paper. The nation’s patriots and bakeries tried to conform. They couldn’t.

One mother’s letter to the governing agency summarized the problems, “If I have to slice the bread for my family of five, it means I have to cut off two slices of bread for each one to put in the toaster in the morning. And then another 10 slices of bread for their noon time sandwiches. It takes a lot of time in a busy morning of getting everyone off to school and work.” according to the story on Wikipedia.
She, like thousands of others, did not want to revert to uncut loaves. They wanted the convenience and the time saving element of sliced bread.
To celebrate having the best thing (sliced bread) as their claim to fame, the folks of Chillicothe hold a Sliced Bread Jam Bluegrass Festival in June. This year it will be held June 20.

We arrived much too early for the festival so we strolled the quiet streets and discovered much more than the mural about sliced bread. A local mural painter (who signs his name Kelly) has covered the sides of many of the downtown’s two and three story buildings with scenes of the city during the era of the horse and buggy. Above the barber shop, Kelly has painted windows showing folks having their hair trimmed. On the side of a single story building, a train rushes down the track right at the viewer. The back side of another building, painted to look like a brick building with two stories of windows, uses the windows to memorialize various folks in the town’s history: a music teacher, a business owner, the business of manufacturing of gloves: (beginning in the 1970s Chillicothe became the largest site for making leather gloves in the United States.)

We kept discovering murals and snapping pictures as we strolled down the street in search of the actual site of the first sliced bread. We thought our path took us by a working train station until we passed the sign portraying a coal burning train engine and words declaring “Wabash Barbecue.”
We found the building where the bakery sliced the first loaves of bread. A blue historical marker stated we had finally arrived at the site of the first loaves of pre-sliced bread in the world. Such a simple way to memorialize a device that changed kitchens and diets across the country.

We took another picture.
Before we left we made one more stop and visited with a local shop owner who clarified that the huge parking lot filled with cars was not an afternoon convention. They all belonged to a local car dealership who sells cars over the Internet. The town may not be sending out loaves of sliced bread anymore, but it is still leaving its mark.
We stayed in town longer than we had planned. As we prepared to leave the quiet streets of downtown Chillicothe, I made my husband a sandwich of processed meat, a slice of whole wheat bread and no mayo. He ate all of it and asked for another … with a bit of ketchup the next time.

Joan Hershberger is a staff writer. She may be reached at