Until the mid-19th century, your average loaf of bread was grainy, heavy, and dark. With innovations like mechanical slicers and refined flour, however, bread became white, fluffy, and in the perfect portions to make a sandwich.
The "best thing since sliced bread" hasn't always meant much, however, and the role of bread in social and political history is much more complex than a simple bread recipe. The Romans were able to distract the masses from social unrest by making sure there was plenty of "bread and circuses." One of the major differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church includes the use of unleavened and leavened bread, respectively. In another social application of bread, in the early 20th century, white bread became the subject of racist conversation and visions of ethnic superiority.
Until the rise of factories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most of the bread people ate was made locally. Wheat and other grains were processed by hand in the home or – less often – at the local bakery down the road. Bakeries, especially those that were mechanized, were viewed as dirty, and consumers didn't always know what was in their food.
Ironically, by the end of the 19th century, bread-buyers began to seek out bread that was made at even larger factory facilities. They held the belief that factory bread was made in a clean environment and, because the bread was white, it was pure, healthy, and safe.
Around the turn of the 20th century, going to the corner store to buy bread meant buying it from an immigrant. After the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union of America formed in 1886, many local chapters were dominated by immigrants. For example, in 1903, German immigrant bakers made up many of the members.
German bread was coarse, unrefined, and dark, which was also considered dirty like the immigrants who made it – so the racist, xenophobic line of thinking went – and it symbolized lower-class living. Bread in bakeries was also left out in the open, which made it susceptible to dirt, germs, and other possible health risks.
White bread was not without its early naysayers, however. Presbyterian minister and health reformer Sylvester Graham saw loaves of white bread as tasteless, susceptible to additives like chalk, clay, and plaster, and misleading to consumers. By making loaves of white bread bigger and heavier, people were being duped into thinking they were getting more and better bread – but they were not. Graham's alternative was to make bread at home with rich, coarse ingredients. One author exalted Graham's ideas and offered a recipe in 1839:
"It is an excellent article of diet for the dyspeptic and the costive; and for most persons of sedentary habits, would be beneficial. It agrees well with children; and, in short, I think it should be used in every family, though not to the exclusion of fine bread.
Take six quarts of this wheat meal, one tea-cup of good yeast, and half a tea-cup of molasses, mix these with a pint of milk-warm water and a tea-spoonful of pearlash or salaeratus. Make a hole in the flour, and stir this mixture in the middle of the meal till it is like batter. Then proceed as with fine flour bread. Make the dough when sufficiently light into four loaves, which will weigh two pounds per loaf when baked. It requires a hotter oven than fine flour bread, and must bake about an hour and a half."
Graham Bread is the predecessor of the modern Graham cracker.
With growing concerns about food, the so-called Pure Foods and Drug Movement of the mid- to late-19th century led to increased oversight of food production by the US government. The federal government began regulating food and drug quality in the 1840s and states started to supervise food and drug production during the 1880s. Food safety legislation and the mass production of bread in factories grew side-by-side.
Bread made in factories was safe because it wasn't touched by human hands, especially those of an immigrant (a big relief to the carbohydrate-consuming xenophobes), and was wrapped to keep it clean.