greatest thing since sliced bread / best thing since sliced bread

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greatest thing since sliced bread / best thing since sliced bread

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Jun 20, 2010 6:01 am

I was just reading the latest copy of the AARP Bulletin (American Association of Retired Persons) and no, you don’t have to be old and feeble to be a member – membership starts at 50. Anyway, on the last page they had a list of 50 common phrases followed by cutesy remarks. I won’t subject you to the cutesy remarks, but three of the 50 caught my eye. This posting only deals with one, THE GREATEST (or BEST) THING SINCE SLICED BREAD and I’ll take up the other two in a future postings.

Here are several blurbs, some of which offer somewhat different twists:

BREWER’S DICTIONARY OF MODERN PHRASE & Fable (2006)

BEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD: The best thing or person ever. A general term of commendation dating from the late 1960s and referring, tongue in cheek, to the great technological innovation that enabled bread to be wrapped and already sliced. Sliced bread was first produced in 1930, in the United States, under the brand name Wonder Bread, the bread slicing machine having been invented by Otto Rohwedder.
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FACTS ON FILE DICTIONARY OF CLICHÉS (2001)

THE GREATEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD: A useful new invention. Originating in the mid-twentieth century, probably in the armed forces, this expression also can be used sarcastically; indeed, not everyone regards packaged presliced bread as a taste treat, although it is undoubtedly a convenience. In Britain it is also put as best thing since sliced bread. . . Numerous variants have arisen, such as the greatest thing since the hamburger, chewing gum, and indoor plumbing, but none became as common as sliced bread.
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SHORTER DICTIONARY OF CATCH PHRASES (1994) Compiled by R. Fergusson from the work of Eric Partridge & Paul Beale

THE BEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD: An expression of wholehearted appreciation, often applied to a useful novelty. Used in the UK since around 1950 or earlier. The phrase may have originated in the USA in the form the greatest thing since sliced bread. It is sometimes used ironically by those who despise sliced bread as inferior convenience food.
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OXFORD DICTIONARY OF IDIOMS (2005)

THE BEST (or) GREATEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD (informal: A notable new idea, person, or thing (used to express real or ironic appreciation)
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OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY (1989)

. . . in colloquial phrase the best (or greatest, etc.) thing since sliced bread: an expression of enthusiastic appreciation, especially of a new invention or discovery.

Note: The OED’s quotes from the 1989 edition, in my opinion, do not provide good examples and I have not included any of them below. Their earliest quote with greatest was from 1969 and using best was from 1976. Below see my corresponding quotes from 1954 and 1957.
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But the most authoritative article (includes references, notes, and very interesting details) I found – with more than everything you wanted to know about sliced bread – appeared in the often defiled Wikipedia

WIKIPEDIA

Note: the numbers in brackets [ ] are references and I left them in to show that the article is well-documented.

SLICED BREAD: Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, USA invented the first loaf-at-a-time bread-slicing machine. A prototype he built in 1912 was destroyed in a fire[2] and it was not until 1928 that Rohwedder had a fully working machine ready. The first commercial use of the machine was by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, which produced their first slices on July 7, 1928.[3] Their product, "Kleen Maid Sliced Bread", proved a success. Battle Creek, Michigan has a competing claim as the first city to sell bread presliced by Rohwedder's machine; however, historians have produced no documentation backing up Battle Creek's claim.[4] The bread was advertised as, "the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped."[5]

St. Louis baker Gustav Papendick bought Rohwedder's second bread slicer and set out to improve it by devising a way to keep the slices together at least long enough to allow the loaves to be wrapped.[6] After failures trying rubber bands and metal pins, he settled on placing the slices into a cardboard tray. The tray aligned the slices, allowing mechanized wrapping machines to function.[7]

W.E. Long, who promoted the Holsum Bread brand, used by various independent bakers around the country, pioneered and promoted the packaging of sliced bread beginning in 1928.[8] In 1930 Wonder Bread, first sold in 1925, started marketing sliced bread nationwide.

The phrase "the greatest thing since sliced bread" (and variations thereof) is a commonly used hyperbolic means of praising an invention or development. Sliced bread appears to be something of an arbitrary selection as the benchmark against which later inventions should be judged. It has been said that "the phrase is the ultimate depiction of innovative achievement and American know-how",[9] although it is commonly used in the United Kingdom as well.

The popular use of the phrase derives from the fact that Wonder Bread, the first mass-marketer of sliced bread as a product, launched a 1930s ad campaign touting the innovation.[10]

Pre-sliced bread increased consumption of bread.[2] While the commercially sliced bread used uniform and somewhat thinner slices, people ate more slices of bread at a time, and ate bread more frequently, because of the ease of eating another piece of bread. This increased consumption of bread and, in turn, increased consumption of spreads, such as jam, to put on the bread.[2]

During 1943, U. S. officials imposed a short-lived ban on sliced bread as a wartime conservation measure.[11][12] The ban was ordered by Claude R. Wickard who held the position of Food Administrator, and took effect on January 18, 1943. According to the New York Times, officials explained that "the ready-sliced loaf must have a heavier wrapping than an unsliced one if it is not to dry out." It was also intended to counteract a rise in the price of bread, caused by the Office of Price Administration's authorization of a ten percent increase in flour prices.[13]

In a Sunday radio address on January 24, Mayor LaGuardia suggested that bakeries that had their own bread-slicing machines should be allowed to continue to use them, and on January 26, 1943, . .

On January 26, however, John F. Conaboy, the New York Area Supervisor of the Food Distribution Administration, warned bakeries, delicatessens, and other stores that were continuing to slice bread to stop, saying that "to protect the cooperating bakeries against the unfair competition of those who continue to slice their own bread... we are prepared to take stern measures if necessary."[15]

On March 8, 1943, the ban was rescinded. Wickard stated that "Our experience with the order, however, leads us to believe that the savings are not as much as we expected, and the War Production Board.
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A ban on sliced bread, that’s rich!
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The following are quotes from archived sources:
<1952 “‘Don’t worry about television,’ Red Skelton advises in a recent interview. ‘It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.’”—Sallisbury Times (Maryland), 5 January, page 10> [[archived source]]

<1954 “We Kokomons think that our memorial Gymnasium is about the best thing since sliced bread”—Kokomo Tribune (Indiana), 16 December, page 16>

<1957 (advertisement) “The Greatest Thing Since Sliced BREAD: Ford V-8 Rebuilt Motor – All new parts guarantee – Models ’32 through ’53 – $99.50”—Star-News (Pasadena, California), page 28>

<1971 “. . . I’ve got my arm around her, telling her she’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”—News and Tribune (Jefferson City, Missouri), 23 May, page 26>

<1982 “A start-up problem [[with]] the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter does not diminish the fact that it’s ‘the best thing since sliced bread for Army aviators,’ . . . “—European Stars and Striped (Damstadt, Germany), 2 April, page 8>

<1991 “Your mom is looking at you like you were the best thing since sliced bread and making plans for you to have a modeling contract and grad school diploma by age 5.”— Syracuse Herald Journal (New York), 10 May, page 198>

<1997 “He called and we have gone out twice. I like him, but I don't consider him the greatest thing since sliced bread.”—Frederick News-Post, 14 March, page 24>

<2005 “. . .was struck by an odd sight in her neighbor's driveway, an apparent apparition from the past: a dairy truck delivering milk to a box on the front porch. Upon investigation, she signed up for the service herself. ‘It's the best thing since sliced bread,'' she said.”—New York Times, 23 January>

< 2010 “The vast majority of candidates believe they are good at this and good at that. What they need to say is ‘I am the greatest thing since sliced bread at this . . . ’ but are often afraid to do so because they feel it may cut them off from other opportunities.”—Evening Standard (London), 11 May>
(quotes from archived sources)

From my observation of the above quotes and the many I didn’t list, it appears that in the U.K. the preferred form is BEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD. However, in the U.S. BEST and GREATEST seem to be used interchangeably. Personally, I tend to use GREATEST.
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Ken G – June 19, 2010
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Re: greatest thing since sliced bread / best thing since sliced bread

Post by Wizard of Oz » Mon Jun 21, 2010 5:15 am

.. Ken this is a favourite expression of mine .. when I looked it up in Flavell's Dictionary of Idioms they mentioned a Sainsbury's UK advetisment in 1981 which went >>

Sainsbury's brings you the greatest thing since sliced bread. Unsliced bread.

.. they also mentioned that Wonderbread sliced bread had been sold in the UK since 1930 .. in researching this for confirmation I found the following ..
1928 Otto Rohwedder's bread slicing machine is first exhibited at a bakery trade fair in America
1930 Commercial bread slicers are introduced for use in large bakeries. Sliced bread appears in Britain under the ‘Wonderbread’ label
1933 Around 80% of bread in the US is sold pre-sliced and wrapped. The expression “The best thing since sliced bread” is coined
1939 The contribution of Britain’s bakers to the home-front war effort is considered so valuable that they do not have to join the Armed Forces; baking becomes known as a ‘reserved occupation’
• Slicing and wrapping of loaves is prohibited at the outbreak of World War II as an economy measure
1948 Bread rationing ends
1950 Slicing and wrapping of loaves – prohibited during World War II as an economy measure – is reintroduced
1981 Sainsbury’s uses ‘The greatest thing since sliced bread’ in a nationwide advertising campaign

Source: British Baker magazine @ http://www.bakeryinfo.co.uk/news/fullstory.php/aid/882
.. in Australia this idiom is used exclusively as referring to things in a positive light, ie no sarcastic usage ..

WoZ who likes slicing his own
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Re: greatest thing since sliced bread / best thing since sliced bread

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Jun 22, 2010 6:09 am

Wiz, Interesting stuff. I didn’t check it all, but I would differ with the statement that THE BEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD was coined in 1933. I did a pretty thorough search on this one and all indications are that it was probably coined in the late 1940s or early 1950s. If it had been around since 1933, it seems likely I would have snared an example. On the other hand, it appears unlikely, but not impossible, that folks had been using the expression for nearly 30 years before it became popular enough to have made it into print.

In my above 1952 quote (my earliest), comedian Red Skelton (for the longest time I thought is name was Red Skeleton!) used the expression, and it’s even conceivable that he coined it because it does sound like something a comedian might say. Or, he could have just been repeating something he had heard before.

The Flavell’s DICTIONARY OF IDIOMS (2000) said:
<“It is not known when the phrase the best thing since sliced bread first became popular. It may have been during the early years of the product or perhaps when sales started to boom in the 1950s and the work of the housewife was made just that little bit easier.”>
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So we have three possibilities here: 1) coined in 1933, but not appearing in print till circa 1950. 2) coined and first appearing in print circa 1950. 3) coined in 1933 but not popularized and appearing in print till circa 1950.

Whether true or not, I found the following in what appears to be an authoritative book titled:

INVENTING THE 20th CENTURY – 100 INVENTIONS THAT SHAPED THE WORLD: FROM THE AIRPLANE TO THE ZIPPER (2002) by Stephen Van Dulken & Phillips, page 64 (see Google books)
< “Rohwedder [[inventer of bread slicing machine]] was definitely a man obsessed with his subject. All of his many patents seem to be involved with bread. His US 1591357 [[patent]] is a display rack for bread while US 1724368 and US 171759592 involve using staples to hold sliced loaves together, a rather frightening thought. There are various devices for handling and feeding loaves, and US 1935996, US 2034250 and US 2061315 are further thoughts on slicing bread machines. The last of these was filed in 1935 and involves slots for receiving the cutting bands. Even US 1740038, a device for making wires, is almost certainly to do with making the cutting bands. The expression ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ apparently only dates from the 1950s as army slang and so, surprisingly, was not coined at the time of Rohwedder’s invention.”>
One never knows, but the detailed scholarly work provided in this book, such as the original patent drawings and patent numbers, etc., indicate the authors were as obsessed with thoroughness and accuracy, as Rohwedder was obsessed with bread.

So, although I find theory #2 the most plausible, if I were a real etymologist I think I would be compelled to respond with a disappointing origin uncertain. (>;)
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Ken – June 21, 2010 (of an opinion but certainly uncertain)
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Re: greatest thing since sliced bread / best thing since sliced bread

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Jun 22, 2010 6:23 am

Ken Greenwald wrote:
His US 1591357 [[patent]] is a display rack for bread while US 1724368 and US 171759592 involve using staples to hold sliced loaves together [...].
Certainly, many people still regard bread as a staple food.
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Re: greatest thing since sliced bread / best thing since sliced bread

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Jun 22, 2010 6:57 am

And there were those who regarded Wonder Bread and its ilk as stable food – as my mom who used to bake her own bread when she had the time. But I thought it was the greatest thing since the Phillips screwdriver.
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Ken – June 21, 2010
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Re: greatest thing since sliced bread / best thing since sliced bread

Post by hsargent » Tue Jun 22, 2010 2:48 pm

Does Europe typically have a market for sliced bread? There is a wider variety and tends to be harder/more chewy.

I am reminded of another expression of my mother's and I heard it this last week is a rural town in Texas. "Handy as a pocket on a shirt"!
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Re: greatest thing since sliced bread / best thing since sliced bread

Post by Bobinwales » Tue Jun 22, 2010 3:33 pm

hsargent wrote:Does Europe typically have a market for sliced bread? There is a wider variety and tends to be harder/more chewy.
We do have a very wide choice of sliced and real bread Harry. Some is better than others! Most is edible, but not all.
"Handy as a pocket on a shirt"!
Did your mother mean that a shirt pocket was useful or useless Harry? It made me think of "Handy as a pocket on a shroud". Or to tightwads, "There is no pocket in a shroud".
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Re: greatest thing since sliced bread / best thing since sliced bread

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Jun 22, 2010 7:32 pm

Harry, Your mother's expression reminded me of the title of a book I have which is filled with such colorful sayings on various topics. But with some of them, I couldn't always tell if the item was a positive (useful) or a negative (useless) unless the author told us, which he does.

The title of the book is HANDY AS HIP POCKETS ON A HOG – THE COLORFUL LANGUAGE OF THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST (1989) by Donald Chain Black

Here's a sampling.

Linguistically distinctive for its convenience:

handy as a latch on the outhouse door

handy as pockets on a shirt

handy as one-syllable words

handy as sliced bread

Ironic similes are just as popular:

about as handy as hip pockets on a shroud

about as handy as a turd in a punch bowl

about as handy as hip pockets on a hog
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Ken – June 22, 2010
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Re: greatest thing since sliced bread / best thing since sliced bread

Post by trolley » Tue Jun 22, 2010 9:02 pm

....as a screen door on a submarine, a chocolate teapot, the white crayon, a parachute in a spelling bee....
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Re: greatest thing since sliced bread / best thing since sliced bread

Post by hsargent » Wed Jun 23, 2010 4:03 am

I have never heard of the shirt pocket reference being anything but useful rather than sarcasm.

I would think that handy as a pocket on a shroud is a contrast to the original expression.
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Re: greatest thing since sliced bread / best thing since sliced bread

Post by Bobinwales » Wed Jun 23, 2010 9:22 am

hsargent wrote:I have never heard of the shirt pocket reference being anything but useful
I'm glad of that. It's where I keep my telephone!
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End of topic.
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