If you thought prohibition was a doomed experiment, imaging prohibiting sliced bread. Yet, not long after sliced bread was invented, it was indeed banned, albeit temporarily, in the United States.
By 1933, sliced bread sales had exceeded sales of unsliced loaves of bread. America was absolutely in love with this new innovation. Then, during World War II, on January 18, 1943, Claude R. Wickard, the U.S. food administrator banned all commercial bakers from selling any sliced bread.
This new order was one of many such measures meant to conserve resources during the war. What resources was this ban meant conserve? It is not entirely clear. According to Wickard, quoted in a New York Times article,
“The ready-sliced loaf must have a heavier wrapping than an unsliced one if it is not to dry out.”
This heavier wrapping would require the paper to be waxed, Wickard explained and since American was focused on defeating the Nazis and the Japanese, the country had better things to do than wrap sliced bread!
And, since this bread, without its heavy wrapping of wax-paper would dry out more quickly “housewives” would often throw away the stale slices. This wasted wheat.
Was there a shortage of wax paper in the United States? No. This lead many to suggest that the real reason for the ban was to conserve wheat and this would seem to be evidenced by the concern expressed over wasted slices of bread. This rationale would also make sense given that the advent of pre-sliced bread would appear to have increased bread consumption, and therefore wheat consumption, in general. Wikard hoped, it was claimed, that selling fewer loaves of bread would conserve wheat without having to actually ration the grain. However, the U.S., at this time, had enjoyed a great crop and had a reserve of grain that would last for several years.
Wheat conservation may not seem to be a likely motivation for the ban but we must realize that since Wickard had the necessary mandate to impose these sorts of bans, he may well have believed that what he was doing made sense.
Since wheat conservation did not appear to make sense, however, another rationale was suggested. The automated slicing of bread required specialized machines that not only used metal but needed repairs. Thus, it was speculated that the ban aimed to conserve steel. The conservation of steal and other metals during the war was indeed important. In fact, many companies which manufactured metal goods would stop their normal production and re-tool to manufacture materials for the military, including ammo and weapons. Still, repairing a bread-slicing machine now and again could not be expected to constitute any detriment to the war effort.
In reality, the ban on sliced-bread had probably not been given any real thought or analysis, and it did not last long. The outcry over the lack of sliced bread, a product Americans could just not live without, caused a swift reversal. On March 8, 1943, just shy of three months after the order, the ban was lifted:
The order prohibiting the slicing of bread was aimed at effecting economies in the manufacture of bread and the use of paper. Our experience with the order, however, leads us to believe that the savings are not as much as we expected, and the War Production Board tells us that sufficient wax paper to wrap sliced bread for four months is in the hands of paper processors and the baking industry.
1. Clarkson, Janet. Food History Almanac: over 1,300 Years of World Culinary History, Culture, and Social Influence. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.
2. Winterton, PhD Wayne. Stories from History’s Dust Bin: Volume 2. Xlibris, 2015.