I went looking to buy a new car the other day and the car salesman, at one point in his pitch, actually told me that the car under consideration “has all the bells and whistles.”

Why do car salesmen always say that?

When I was 8 years old, I might have wanted a car with bells, even whistles, but not at this point in my life.

It occurred to me that when people can’t think of something original and clever to say – which is most of the time for some – they’ll often fall back on worn phrases, like ”all the bells and whistles, or “It’s the best thing since sliced bread.”

Often, after hearing the expressions, I’d scratch my head and wonder just how bells and whistles or sliced bread became the benchmark against which so many great advancements are now measured. Who’s appointed to make such decisions? Who got up one morning and decided that bells and whistles and sliced bread were great achievements?

Now that we’re well into the 21st century, can’t we come up with some other things to compare things to? If bells and whistles and sliced bread are so great, how come virtually no cars have either bells or whistles and two of the most popular types of bread – French and Italian – are still sold in their natural, un-sliced state?

Huh?

It’s obvious these often-used expressions weren’t thought through. I did a little research on one of the expressions and came up with the story behind the bread slicer.

Otto Frederick Rohwedder – not to be confused with Frederick Otto Rohwedder, of the renowned European circus family, “The Fabulous Flying Rohwedders” – has been called “the father of sliced bread.” In fact it was in the first line of his obituary.

Some cynics think that something as mundane as the invention of a bread slicer would be an abandoned orphan, but Otto never denied being the proud father of the world’s first successful bread slicer.

They say that around 1912, Otto became obsessed with the idea of designing a machine that would automatically slice an entire loaf of bread. He worked tirelessly for many years, despite the fact that his first bread-slicing efforts were greeted with raucous laughter and strong resistance from members of the elite, tight-knit baker community. They scoffed at his slicer, saying they had everything they kneaded (an example of baker’s humor). The bakers also said that Otto’s sliced bread would go stale (like their jokes) much quicker than un-sliced bread.

Ignoring their criticisms, Otto kept working. His first hair-brained idea was to slice the bread and then hold it together with hatpins. The resulting machine was not a success. In fact, at its unveiling at a national bakers convention, it was met with gales of laughter and eventually made popular the expression, “That’s as numb as Otto’s hair-pinned bread slicer.”

In 1928, Otto designed a machine that not only sliced bread, but also wrapped it to prevent it from going stale. Good job, Otto.

For many years, Battle Creek, Mich., claimed to be both the first place to use Rohwedder’s bread-slicing machine and to sell sliced bread. But then evidence came to light that refuted the Battle Creek claim.

The Chillicothe, Mo., Constitution-Tribune of July 7, 1928, carried a story about a new machine first used at M.F. Bench’s Chillicothe Baking Co. According to the story, Mr. Bench assisted Otto Frederick Rohwedder in fine-tuning his new bread-slicing machine. So, history buffs, sliced bread and the phrase, “greatest thing since …” was apparently “born” in Chillicothe, Mo., on July 7, 1928.

We’re still tracking down the story behind those cars that supposedly have “all the bells and whistles.”

John McDonald is the author of five books on Maine, including “John McDonald’s Maine Trivia: A User’s Guide to Useless Information.” Contact him at [email protected].


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