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Bread: A Unit Study

Bread: A Unit Study

Bread: A Unit Study

On July 7, 1928, the first sliced bread was sold. At the time, bread was a familiar world product. Loaves of bread had been bought and sold for millennia. But up until that date, consumers had taken home a loaf of bread and sliced or tore it themselves in their own homes.

The Story of Sliced Bread

Otto Frederick Rohwedder’s background was in jewelry. He became a jeweler’s apprentice at a young age and worked his way up until he owned three jewelry stores of his own. But although jewelry supplied his income Rohwedder was really an inventor at heart. His jewelry business simply provided him with a collection of tools that he could use to create new machines.

One machine that Rohwedder had set his heart on creating was a bread-slicing machine. He sold all three of his jewelry stores to raise funds for this purpose, built a factory, and created a prototype.

In 1917 Rohwedder suffered a severe setback when a factory fire destroyed both his blueprints and his prototype. Nevertheless, by 1928, Rohwedder’s invention was refined to the point where it could consistently cut bread into slices ½ inch thick and then wrap them. He set up shop in his Chillicothe Baking Company in Missouri and began business.

At first, customers were somewhat wary, as individual slices of bread would go stale much more quickly than an entire loaf. Over time, however, the machine was improved to the point where it could wrap the loaf and package it in cardboard, thus keeping the bread fresher longer.

Before too long, Americans found sliced bread to be a great convenience. This eventually led to an increase in bread consumption, as well as a dramatic rise in electric toaster sales.

Bread Throughout History

The process of making bread is so ancient that it would be impossible to give a precise account of its origins. Suffice it to say that the most ancient cultures known to modern civilization all had some variation on the bread-baking process. Bread is referenced repeatedly in the Old Testament, with unleavened bread having particular symbolic importance (besides being a convenient way to entertain unexpected guests). Specimens of ancient bread have been found in Egyptian tombs and in the ruins of Pompeii. The Greeks and Romans had public bakeries and even made bread in interesting shapes ranging from plows to wedding rings.

In Ancient Roman times, the burgeoning urban populations led to an increased demand for bread. This led to improvements in the process of milling and baking on a large scale, particularly in the military, but even these advances did not ease the fears of those in the government that the public would grow uneasy and revolt. To appease the people, bread was given out on a large scale. About 200,000 people received bread from the government in the time of Julius Caesar, each person carrying a bronze or lead ration ticket to make their claim. Furthermore, Rome began importing large quantities of grain, particularly from Egypt, but also from Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, and North Africa, as it was less expensive to import the massive amounts of grain needed by sea than to transport it via cart from the surrounding countryside of modern-day Italy.

Commercial baking declined for a time after the fall of the Roman Empire, but it increased again as cities arose during the Middle Ages. Bread experienced a particularly rocky phase of its history during the medieval days, as famines and bread-related uprisings were common. Peasants were forbidden to grind their own grain, millers commonly mixed flour with less expensive substances, and imported grains were typically subjected to numerous taxes and tariffs. To add to the problems, ignorance of proper grain storage methods frequently led to foodborne illness outbreaks.

The subsequent centuries of bread-baking history were hardly less tumultuous, with monarchs and rulers of many nations tightly regulating the process in hopes of keeping control of the situation. The Industrial Revolution eased the situation in North America and Europe, as mills were built to grind grain into flour and a wide range of commercial baking equipment was developed. After World War I, a new problem emerged—Stanford University found that 6% to 10% of bread production went unsold, resulting in over half a million barrels of flour being wasted annually.

The Basic Ingredients of Bread

In most cases, the main ingredients used to produce bread are the ground seeds of various domesticated grasses, such as wheat, barley, and rye. However, other ingredients that feature prominently in the many breads of the world include everything from acorns to artichokes to kelp.

Additional ingredients depend on what type of bread is being made. A liquid of some type (generally water or milk) is usually necessary for proper moisture and size. A leavening agent such as yeast is common, except in the case of unleavened bread. Salt contributes flavor and controls the fermentation process if yeast is used. Sweeteners add consumer appeal, as do a variety of commercial conditioning agents for that store-bought texture. A few breads also use eggs for color, richness, and fine texture.


But in most cases, wheat is the star of the show. Wheat is depended on as a staple in nearly all parts of the world. There are several reasons that wheat has risen to preeminence over other grains:

  • Adaptability to many different climates and soils.
  • Requires comparatively few inputs in exchange for a substantial harvest.
  • Stores exceptionally well.
  • Has a mild flavor, pleasing to most people.
  • Contains gluten, which makes a soft, light loaf.

Wheat has been cultivated in many countries since the earliest known times, as testified by carbonized grains found in tombs and ruins from Egypt and Turkey to Switzerland and England.

Ironically, however, one of the few places where wheat did not grow until more recent history was North America. Christopher Columbus first introduced wheat to the West Indies in 1493. From there, it traveled to Mexico with Cortés in 1519, where Spanish missionaries further distributed the grain into present-day Arizona and California.

While some wheat cultivation occurred in the American colonies in 1600s and later, wheat production did not become important to Americans until they moved further from the coast to the Ohio Valley and westward, where wheat could be more easily grown. In particular, the Great Plains region with its moderate rainfalls and loamy soils proved to be ideal for this purpose.

Today, the United States produces far more wheat than its residents can use. Therefore, much of its wheat crop is exported to countries less well suited to production, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

There are five types of wheat grown in the United States, each suited to a different geographical region and to a different type of food production:

  • Hard red winter.
    Grown across the Great Plains. The staple for bread flour production.
  • Hard red spring.
    Grown in the northern Great Plains. Used for specialty breads.
  • Soft red winter.
    Mostly grown from the Mississippi eastward, where rainfalls are higher. Used for cakes, cookies, and crackers.
  • White.
    Mostly grown in Michigan, New York, and the Pacific coast states. Used for noodles, crackers, cereals, and some white breads.
  • Durum.
    Grown mostly in North Dakota and Montana. The choice of pasta production.

Without this vast, versatile production of wheat, commercial bread-baking would have been much more challenging. And without commercial baking, there would of course have been no sliced bread, the innovation to which all others are compared in the immortal phrase, “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

More About Bread:

Most breads are made from flour, liquid (milk or water), yeast, sugar, salt and shortening. The special type of protein in wheat, known as gluten, is the substance that gives the soft, springy quality to bread doughs when they are being kneaded and that enables the doughs to retain the gases produced by yeast fermentation. Because of this, wheat flours can be made into soft, light, finely textured loaves of bread. Flours made from other grains do not have this type of protein and only rather heavy, solid loaves can be made from them….

After baking, the loaves are properly cooled to a definite temperature that the baker has found best for slicing and wrapping. In the slicing and wrapping operation the whole loaf of bread is fed in at one end of the machine and comes out at the other end as packaged slices ready for the table.

“The World’s Bread and Butter,” The Book of Knowledge

Further Investigation

Who Invented Sliced Bread
Background information from the History Channel.


Make Monkey Bread With Your Kids
Fun way to learn more about bread dough and watching the bread rise.

He’s BAC! ~ Free Food Safety Download for Kids
Learn more about food safety.


“The Story of a Loaf of Bread”
Chapter from How We Are Fed by James Franklin Chamberlain, a public domain work.

The Story of a Loaf of Bread by Thomas Barlow Wood
Book from The Cambridge Manuals of Science and Literature series covering growing, farming, milling, marketing, and baking.

Units & Lesson Plans

Free Nature Studies: Our Daily Bread (Wheat)
Many resources in this portion of our free nature studies.

Book Study: The Little Red Hen {Free eBook & Activities}
Unit activities for younger students.

Science Story Time: Bread and Mold Experiment
Lesson plan from Penn State to learn more about bread….

Printable & Notebooking Pages

The Chemistry of Bread-Making
Infographic for notebook.

Bread Slice Shape Book
Fun notebooking page at for younger students.

Bread Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.

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