The above expression is used to signify a person, thing, or experience as awesomely superlative.
“… Heather’s got it all – brains, good looks, a terrific sense of humor, plus she’s the nicest person ever. She’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
“… Once scientists invent Harry Potter’s “Cloak of Invisibility” for real, it will be the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
What’s So Great About Sliced Bread?
My sister Darlene, who’s a wonderful English professor and who is fascinated by words even more than I (me?), called me the other day and said that her husband had recently used the expression “the greatest thing since sliced bread” to describe some technological breakthrough that will change forever the way we use the internet, or teletransport, or something.
And she wondered if I’d ever heard the idiom before, because it was new to her. To which I answered yes, I hear it used all the time by people who want to note the overwhelming superiority of somebody or something new in a way that’s smile-inducing – although sometimes the catchphrase is applied sarcastically.
But how, asked my sister, did something so prosaic as sliced bread become a signifier of excellence?
A Little History
According to Wikipedia, an American engineer by the name of Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented the first automatic bread-slicing machine, which was originally used in 1928 by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri. Soon, other small-sized or regional bakeries started buying the slicers. In 1930, Wonder Bread, already a huge national brand, started selling its packaged white bread pre-sliced, thus helping establish an American and eventually worldwide preference for bread already sliced right out of the wrapper.
But who first coined the phrase “the greatest thing since sliced bread” remains a mystery, at least according to my quick Internet research. I could not find a single early attribution, although a lot of articles on the web imply that the incredible popularity of Wonder Bread had something to do with the emergence of the idiom.
A Real Game Changer
The truth is that machine-sliced bread was a big breakthrough, and could be thought of as one of the earlier and most successful convenience foods.
The development of pre-sliced bread meant that adults could quickly throw together sandwiches or easily make toast without going through the bother of getting out a cutting board and bread knife to saw through a loaf. It also meant that children could be entrusted to make sandwiches on their own, without parents having to worry about dangerous knives encountering small fingers.
And since all the pre-cut slices in an ordinary “Pullman” rectangular-shaped loaf are the same size, it made food planning and preparation easier for households and restaurants alike.
Pre-sliced bread actually represented the first real change in how people consumed leavened bread since the ancient Greeks perfected this basic food about 2,500 years ago.
Other Game Changers During the 1920s and Early 1930s
In America, pre-sliced bread was just one of many things we now take for granted but back then were celebrated as new and exciting – in other words, real game-changers.
Like transcontinental and transoceanic air flight. Or talking pictures. Or cellophane. The chemical giant DuPont perfected this stuff in 1927, coincidentally the same year the first pre-sliced, prepackaged bread came on the market. And Americans went crazy over this early type of clear plastic wrapping material.
Cole Porter, the famous Broadway songwriter, celebrated cellophane’s special-ness by mentioning it in a tune called “You’re the Top” from his 1934 musical Anything Goes.
In the song, the male protagonist favorably compares the woman he’s wooing to a list of wonderful things:
Of a summer night in Spain,
You’re the National Gallery,
You’re Garbo’s salary,
The Last Word from a Plucky Redhead
In the movie musical Annie, based on Little Orphan Annie, the iconic comic strip that ran in American newspapers from 1924 to 2010, the redoubtable Annie attempts to play matchmaker between her benefactor, the gruff, balding gazillionaire “Daddy” Oliver Warbucks and the lovely Grace Farrell, his private secretary.
Annie: She thinks you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Daddy Warbucks: I beg your pardon?
Annie: I know it’s none of my business, but you never notice anything!
To which I can only concur with Annie’s trusty dog Sandy and say a moist and heartfelt “Arf.”