Legendary invention was toast, following 1917 Monmouth fire
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Monmouth is famous for the manufacture of several successful inventions, but it is infamous for one legendary invention that failed to be manufactured here.
That invention, which bears Patent No. 1,867,377, would revolutionize an entire industry, but a devastating Monmouth factory fire in 1917 would delay the patent application for more than a decade. The invention wasn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread — it was literally the first successful commercial device for slicing bread.
The fire, which leveled the Maple City Manufacturing plant on South 1st Street, destroyed all the blueprints and prototype of the machine, which was being built by one of the three manufacturing companies that occupied the massive four-story brick factory. It also nearly destroyed the dreams of 37-year-old jeweler Otto Frederick Rohwedder, who had been working on the invention since 1912 in St. Joseph, Missouri.
In 1916, Rohwedder, who had been advised by doctors to quit the jewelry profession after surviving a serious bout with pneumonia, sold his three jewelry stores in Missouri and returned to his native Davenport, Iowa. It was there that he entered into an agreement with Monmouth’s Maple City Manufacturing Co. to build a prototype of his bread slicer. A metal-stamping business that produced primarily oil cans and fuel tanks, the company shared the factory with a mitten manufacturer and an acetylene lamp manufacturer. The plant stood just south of the railroad tracks, between East 5th and East 6th Avenues.
Rohwedder was assured that his prototype was being stored in a fireproof room of the factory, but, in fact, the factory was a tinderbox ready to ignite. It had been built in 1900 as a soap factory and had no sprinklers — only 3-inch vertical pipes with hoses. Moreover, due to the earlier soap manufacture, many of the walls and floors were literally soaked with grease. At 12:40 on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1917, a gas-fired annealing oven in the northeast corner of the second floor exploded.
When firemen arrived (Monmouth had just four salaried firefighters and 25 volunteers), the entire structure was burning fiercely, so all the crew could do was try to keep the fire from spreading to nearby houses and a lumber yard. Pressure from the one four-inch water main was so low that the firemen had to lay two lines of 500-foot hose to a pond a block and a half away. They used their only pumper to throw two engine streams on the building. Six hydrants were tapped, but their streams were ineffective, and in just 90 minutes the factory was a total loss.
Besides dashing Rohwedder’s plans, the fire put more than 100 women and girls (who manufactured mittens) and nearly 150 men (who worked in the metal factory and lamp factory) out of work. The men would soon find new employment at the Rock Island Arsenal, where there was a shortage of experienced fabricators making munitions for World War I.
Rohwedder took a job with an investment firm, but his dreams of slicing bread wouldn’t fade. With money borrowed from friends, relatives and banks, he recreated his machine — a reciprocating knife frame-slicing device, capable of handling an entire loaf in one operation.
By January 1928, the device was ready, but it took him three months to find a bakery that was willing to sell pre-sliced bread. That company was located in Chillicothe, Missouri, and within the first week of operation, its sales almost doubled. The following week, the bakery added a penny to the price of sliced bread, but demand remained strong, as recent improvements to the electric toaster had created a growing market for the product.
Naysayers had argued that slicing the bread would make it get stale more quickly, but Rohwedder demonstrated that his device cut so precisely that the bread was not pulled apart, and that the machine applied pressure, so the slices were actually pushed together in the process, with no air admitted. It was then wrapped in wax paper.
Within five years, 80 percent of bread sold in the United States was sliced and Rohwedder could not meet the demands of bakers for his invention, who hounded him day and night. He and his wife were forced to go into hiding, renting a houseboat on the Mississippi River.
Rohwedder had established a new manufacturing plant in Davenport when the stock market crash hit. He eventually sold his rights to a Bettendorf company, which hired him to serve as vice president of its bakery machine division. He retired in 1951 at the age of 71 and moved with his wife to Michigan, to be near their daughter.
In his spare time, Rohwedder also became a popular motivational speaker, traveling the country telling his story of perseverance following the Monmouth disaster that eventually led to his success and the title, “the Father of Sliced Bread.” Rohwedder died in 1960. One of the first models of his original slicing machine resides in the Smithsonian Institution.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.