"The greatest thing since sliced bread" may be a phrase we're all familiar with, however it may be less well known that white bread has been enjoyed for thousands of years and has even been used as a status symbol. The ancient Greeks and Romans argued whether white or dark bread was better, and this same debate seems to be raging today as white bread has evolved into a mundane and non-nutritious, albeit ubiquitous staple on our tables.
Certainly since recorded history and possibly even before that, bread has been a principal form of food. White bread loaves and rolls have been discovered in the tombs of the ancient Egyptians, and wheat in its natural form has been found buried in excavated pits from settlements more than 8,000 years old. The Bible mentions leavened and unleavened breads, and pictographs thousands of years old show prosperity by an abundance of neatly formed loaves. The Romans were the first to establish the importance of bread by forming a Bakers Guild around 168 B.C., and the members were strictly regulated to remain uncontaminated by the general populace so that the bread would remain constant.
White bread has long been a sign of quality. History records many rivalries between cities in ancient Greece who would claim to have the better quality bread. Breads made with the whitest flour, or made with milk, eggs and butter, were reserved for the elite, while the coarser darker loaves were saved for the general populace. Bakers in medieval England closely hoarded their secrets of bread making and enforced a seven-year apprenticeship on anybody who wished to learn the art of making fine-textured white breads.
In times of famine, war and other disasters, bread and wheat are the first things to be closely guarded or regulated. King John established regulations to monitor and fix the price of bread to avoid rebellion that would often result among the poorer population, especially after short or poor harvests, and stiff penalties were imposed on bakers who were found to sell an underweight loaf of bread. During World War I great strides were made in the development of white bread to lengthen its shelf life and to preserve quality to feed the troops.
The Industrial Revolution
The invention of the steam engine revolutionized the process by which white bread was made. However, it wasn't until the mid 1800s that a Swiss engineer invented a new kind of mill to replace the commonly used water-powered mills. His reduction roller mill soon became widely used all over Europe. Driven by steam-powered engines, these mills allowed for faster bread production and also enabled a more consistent quality of white bread that was more widely available to everybody, not just the elite.
Sliced bread was popularized after a slicing machine was invented by Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, in 1928. The slicing machine was quickly adopted by Wonder Bread, the first company to mass produce and sell pre-sliced white bread.