On January 18, 1943, the head of the War Food Administration, Claude R. Wickard, instituted a ban on the sale of sliced bread in the United States. It was a move that didn’t make him a lot of friends. His claim was that by halting the manufacture of steel bread slicing machines, a lot of steel could be preserved for the war effort. Of course the argument doesn’t really hold up when one considers the fairly slow rate of production for such machines, having been in wide use in bakeries ever since their invention fourteen years earlier sparked an enthusiastic love affair between Americans and pre-sliced bread.
But besides just the not-so-significant steel savings, banning sliced bread also offered the advantage of lowering demand for bread, thereby counteracting the 10% increase in wheat prices instituted by the Office of Price Administration in an effort to preserve wheat stores. At the time, said stores included only enough to meet normal US consumption for an entire two years without any additional harvest.
Still, there’s the very real concern that sliced bread staled faster than its non-sliced counterpart. Because of this, Food and Drug Administration regulations required the use of a thicker waxed paper for its packaging. And despite the fact that paper manufacturers and bakers easily had a four month supply already on hand at the time the ban went into effect, everyone knows that a military that runs low on waxed paper isn’t a military that can win a war.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the American public, which was generally pretty understanding about sacrificing for the good of the war effort, didn’t think much of Wickard’s ban. One righteously angry housewife explained in a New York Times article that between packing lunches and serving breakfast to her husband and four children, she had to quickly hand-slice twenty-two pieces of bread every morning. Sliced bread, she insisted, was essential to the “morale and saneness of a household.”
Other women were simply left bewildered, consulting bread slicing instruction sheets given out by local bakeries including such helpful advice as : “Keep your head down. Keep your eye on the loaf. Don’t bear down.” Soft as they had become by the easy luxury of pre-sliced bread, it’s a wonder most housewives didn’t cut off any of their own fingers.
It’s amazing, really, to think how important this one product became to the American public. In just fourteen years, from its humble beginnings at the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri, where jeweler and determined inventor Otto Rohwedder introduced his bread-slicing machine to a dubious public, sliced bread rose to its essential morale-boosting status, as the greatest thing since, well, whatever great thing came before sliced bread, I guess.
And there can be little doubt that the ill-considered ban on it was one of the dumber moves of the War Food Administration. The ban was lifted less than two months later, well before the sliced bread industry would have even come close to burning through its stockpile of FDA-approved thick waxed paper. To the vindicated public, a sheepish Wickard admitted, “The savings are not as much as expected.”
Now, I have to say, I buy my share of bakery-fresh bread, unsliced, both because fresh bread tastes delicious, and the idea of the load of preservatives required to replace the extra-thick waxed paper once used to extend shelf-life, kind of gives me a case of the willies. Still, I understand the struggle eloquently expressed by the woman in the New York Times. When I’m slapping sandwiches together to stuff into lunchboxes every morning, it lifts my spirits to be able to reach for a twisty-tied bag of sliced bread, without having to break the law.
It turns out, after the War Food Administration lifted its ban, the good guys went on the win World War II anyway. They did it even against incredible odds resulting from the looming possible hint of maybe a slight waxed paper shortage. And they did it, a practical historian might argue, as a direct result of the morale boost of having sliced bread for their sandwiches.