When Sliced Bread Got Banned During World War II

Home baked sour­dough had its moment dur­ing the ear­ly days of the pan­dem­ic, but oth­er­wise bread has been much maligned through­out the 21st cen­tu­ry, at least in the West­ern World, where carbs are vil­i­fied by body-con­scious con­sumers.

This was hard­ly the case on Jan­u­ary 18, 1943, when Amer­i­cans woke up to the news that the War Foods Admin­is­tra­tion, head­ed by Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture Claude R. Wickard, had banned the sale of sliced bread.

The rea­sons dri­ving the ban were a bit murky, though by this point, Amer­i­cans were well acquaint­ed with rationing, which had already lim­it­ed access to high-demand items as sug­ar, cof­fee, gaso­line and tires.

Though why sliced bread, of all things?

Might depriv­ing the pub­lic of their beloved pre-sliced bread help the war effort, by free­ing up some crit­i­cal resource, like steel?

Not accord­ing to The His­to­ry Guy, Lance Geiger, above.

War pro­duc­tion reg­u­la­tions pro­hib­it­ed the sale of indus­tri­al bread slic­ing equip­ment for the dura­tion, though pre­sum­ably, exist­ing com­mer­cial bak­eries wouldn’t have been in the mar­ket for more machines, just the odd repair part here and there.

Wax paper then? It kept sliced bread fresh pri­or to the inven­tion of plas­tic bags. Per­haps the Allies had need of it?

No, unlike nylon, there were no short­ages of waxed paper.

Flour had been strict­ly reg­u­lat­ed in Great Britain dur­ing the first World War, but this wasn’t a prob­lem state­side in WWII, where it remained rel­a­tive­ly cheap and easy to pro­cure, with plen­ty left­over to sup­ply over­seas troops. 1942’s wheat crop had been the sec­ond largest on record.

There were oth­er ratio­nales hav­ing to do with elim­i­nat­ing food waste and reliev­ing eco­nom­ic pres­sure for bak­ers, but none of these held up upon exam­i­na­tion. This left the War Pro­duc­tion Office, the War Price Admin­is­tra­tion, and the Office of Agri­cul­ture vying to place blame for the ban on each oth­er, and in some cas­es, the Amer­i­can bak­ing indus­try itself!

While the ill con­sid­ered ban last­ed just two months, the pub­lic uproar was con­sid­er­able.

Although pre-sliced bread hadn’t been around all that long, in the thir­teen-and-a-half years since its intro­duc­tion, con­sumers had grown quite depen­dent on its con­ve­nience, and how nice­ly those uni­form slices fit into the slots of their pop up toast­ers, anoth­er recent­ly-patent­ed inven­tion.

A great plea­sure of the His­to­ry Guy’s cov­er­age is the name check­ing of local news­pa­pers cov­er­ing the Sliced Bread Ban:

The Lodi News-Sen­tinel!

The Har­ris­burg Tele­graph! 

The Indi­anapo­lis Star! 

An absence of data did not pre­vent a reporter for the Wilm­ing­ton News Jour­nal from spec­u­lat­ing that “it is believed that the major­i­ty of Amer­i­can house­wives are not pro­fi­cient bread slicers.”

One such house­wife, hav­ing spent a hec­tic morn­ing hack­ing a loaf into toast and sand­wich­es for her hus­band and chil­dren, wrote a let­ter to the New York Times, pas­sion­ate­ly declar­ing “how impor­tant sliced bread is to the morale and sane­ness of a house­hold.”

The more stiff upper lipped patri­o­tism of Ver­mont home eco­nom­ics instruc­tor Doris H. Steele found a plat­form in the Barre Times:

In Grandmother’s day, the loaf of bread had a reg­u­lar place at the fam­i­ly table. Grand­moth­er had an attrac­tive board for the bread to stand on and a good sharp knife along­side. Grand­moth­er knew that a steady hand and a sharp knife were the secrets of slic­ing bread. She sliced as the fam­i­ly asked for bread and in this way, she didn’t waste any bread by cut­ting more than the fam­i­ly could eat. Let’s all con­tribute to the war effort by slic­ing our own bread.

Then, as now, celebri­ties felt com­pelled to weigh in.

New York City May­or Fiorel­lo LaGuardia found it ludi­crous that bak­eries should be pre­vent­ed from putting their exist­ing equip­ment to use.

And Hol­ly­wood actress Olivia de Hav­il­land approved of the ban on the grounds that pack­aged slices were too thick.

Watch more of the His­to­ry Guy’s videos here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

How to Bake Ancient Roman Bread Dat­ing Back to 79 AD: A Video Primer

See Rid­ley Scott’s 1973 Bread Commercial—Voted England’s Favorite Adver­tise­ment of All Time

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of the World’s Only Sour­dough Library

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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