Joseph Lee was born into slavery in Charleston, South Carolina in 1848. He began baking as a child, working in a bakery in Beaufort, South Carolina. Lee refined his cooking skills as a steward in the United States Coastal Survey, where he worked for eleven years.
When Lee left the Coastal Survey, he and his family settled in the Boston area. He opened a restaurant that gradually turned into The Woodland Park Hotel in Newton, MA. The hotel catered to Boston society and regularly entertained high-profile guests, including three U.S. presidents, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. The hotel was also the birthplace of Lee’s most important and lasting inventions that would transform baking and food preparation for much of the next century.
The first, an automated bread-kneading machine, yielded more bread than he and his staff could serve. This machine produced 60 pounds more bread from each barrel of flour than could kneading by hand, saving time and product. Rather than let the extra bread to waste, Lee developed his second groundbreaking invention; the bread crumbing machine. This took day-old bread and turned it into crumbs that restaurants used for many recipes from fried chicken to battered fish, crab cakes to salad croutons, and much more.
Lee was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2019, over 100 years after his death in 1908.