While owner of the posh Woodland Park Hotel in Newton, Massachusetts, in the early 1890s, Joseph Lee watched as his hotel kitchen staff discard loaves of unsold day-old bread each and every day. He was worried that they were letting extra bread to waste. So he developed a groundbreaking invention that would turn day-old bread into bread crumbs.
His automatic bread crumbing machine, which he patented on June 4, 1895, “comprised an oblong, open metal container with rows of holes along the bottom,” according to MF. “When you placed your hardened loaf on top and turned the crank attached to the container, the bread would be pulled through a set of cogs, which would tear it into tiny pieces. Anything too large to fall through the holes would automatically be carried back up to the top for another trip through the cogs.”
In about five years, America’s leading hotels and catering establishments had Lee’s machine in their kitchens, with the bread crumbs being used for various dishes including croquettes, fried chops, fried fish, batter for cakes, and more. A successful hotel and restaurant owner and caterer in Massachusetts, Lee spent a huge chunk of his life in the hospitality industry before his invention.
Born to enslaved parents in South Carolina in 1849, he worked in kitchens as a child before becoming a blacksmith during the Civil War and then a ship’s cook. In Newton, he worked in a bakery and sold food out of the boarding house in which he lived, according to Forbes. He later opened a small local restaurant before launching various businesses in Massachusetts, including two restaurants, a catering company, and then his Woodland Park Hotel. Woodland Park catered to a wealthy clientele including three U.S. presidents — Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. That same plush hotel would give birth to Lee’s crumber, transforming breadmaking for the next century.
Note that the crumbing machine wasn’t Lee’s first invention that sought to revolutionize hotel kitchens and the baking industry overall. Before his crumber, he introduced an automated bread-kneading machine that “evenly kneaded bread dough to produce uniform loaves.” The machine helped save time and could replace the efforts of five or six men. It could produce more bread than kneading by hand could. In 1902, however, Lee adjusted it to mimic kneading by hand. Later, to reduce bread waste, Lee invented his bread crumb machine.
A self-taught baker and chef, Lee accomplished all the above amid anti-Black racism, according to historians. At a time African-American inventors found it challenging to apply for patents, Lee braved all odds to patent his machines. He also became rich thanks to his various businesses, including his hotel, and was named one of Newton’s wealthiest men by the Boston Daily Advertiser in 1886.
In 1901, he assigned the rights to his bread-kneading machine to The National Bread Co., and continued to own stock and receive royalties. He also sold his bread-crumbing machine to The Goodell Co., a manufacturing firm located in New Hampshire. They would ultimately be mass-produced by the Royal Worcester Bread Crumb Co. and marketed to hotels and restaurants across the country, Forbes said.
Lee’s children would also take over his business after his death in 1908. In spite of his amazing inventions from the 1890s, it was only in 2019 that he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Although it took so long for the Boston entrepreneur to be recognized, what has been certain all these years is that he changed the food industry for the better.