How This Black Entrepreneur Changed The Baking Industry

By Gabi Conti

Bread machine with bread. (Pavel Ševela/Wikimedia Commons)

If you were one of the people who jumped onto the homemade bread-making train during the COVID-19 pandemic, you know why professional bread-mongers might see the appeal of speeding up the time-consuming and labor-intensive process with a machine. One person who did was Joseph Lee, who worked in the kitchens on the South Carolina plantation where he was born a slave. Lee took his experience up north after the Civil War, working as a cook and baker in Newton, Massachusetts before opening his own restaurant and ultimately taking over the luxurious Woodland Park Hotel, an über-fancy resort that hosted no fewer than three U.S. presidents under his watch.

Keeping up with demand in the bustling hotel restaurant was a challenge, especially for its most ubiquitous menu item, so Lee created his own bread-making machine that kneaded dough more evenly at the speed of six workers. That created a new problem, however: Lee was literally churning out bread faster than he could sell it. To save the stale leftover loaves from the mercy of the 19th-century waste removal system, Lee created another machine to turn them into tiny chunks of crunchy goodness that could coat fish or top salads. The device was sophisticated for its time, with a hand crank that pulled the bread through a "set of cogs, which would tear it into tiny pieces, [and] anything too large to fall through the holes would automatically be carried back up to the top for another trip through the cogs."

Bread Crumbing Machine by Joseph Lee. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

Lee patented his machines in 1894 and 1985, respectively—no easy feat on its own, since few lawyers of the time were willing to assist black clients with the patent process, which often resulted in the sidelining of black inventors or outright theft of their intellectual property. Within the next decade, Lee was made a stockholder in the National Bread Company, and his machines began popping up in restaurants and hotels all over the world. They became an instant hit with chefs who knew their clientele would prefer bread crumbs, which had until then been difficult to produce in large quantities, to the crackers that were more often used at the time due to their crumbly nature. 

Lee went on to open several more resorts and catering companies and died a wealthy man in 1908. Amazingly, it took another 20 years for sliced bread to be invented by Missourian Otto Rohwedder on July 6, 1928 (meaning that, indeed, Betty White is older than sliced bread). In 2019, Lee was admitted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his accomplishments and contributions to the food industry.

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Gabi Conti

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