A brief summary can be found in The Best of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader (1995, The Bathroom Reader's Institute) on page 390.
has nothing to do with distress signals
In 1917, there was this salesman named Edwin Cox who sold something that every housewife dreamed of - the newly invented aluminum cookware (that's another story). Apparently everyone loved this stuff, as no one even admits to cooking with it today.
He was so unsuccessful at selling this junk, that he decided that he needed a gimmick.
Hmmm.... What to do? What to do?
From his years as a pot salesman, he knew that a major complaint was the way that the food stuck to the pans. He concluded that what was needed was something that combined the abrasive nature of steel wool with the cleansing ability of soap. (I have a better idea - throw out the pots and buy new ones!)
In his kitchen, he hand dipped steel wool into soapy water and let it dry. He then repeated this until the steel wool could hold no more. Even though he was dealing with soap, we can assume that he still left a mess for his wife to clean up. After all, he was male...
The idea worked. More housewives let him through the door and more pots were sold. Each woman received one free sample.
He then ran into a problem. The women wanted to purchase more pads, not pots. So he dipped and dipped and dipped and dipped...
Soon he could dip no more. His (?) kitchen was beyond that much dipping. His sales for these pads exceeded that of his pots.
What did he do? He gave up selling pots and set up a real factory. (He should have called it the Dippity-Doo factory, considering that's all that they did all day)
This product still did not have a name. Somehow, the name 'Steel Wool Dipped in Soap Cleaning Pads' was not chosen, though most obvious.
Enter Mrs.Edwin Cox with a solution. She had called them S.O.S pads in her kitchen, meaning "Save Our Saucepans", and the rest is cleaning history.
Many people think that an error was made in the name's punctuation (note the missing period at the end of S.O.S). This was actually done on purpose. It seems that S.O.S. (with the period) is the famous distress signal (and the name of an old ABBA song barely worth mentioning) and cannot be trademarked. By removing the last period, the name was unique and could then be registered with the Patent Office.
As a sidenote, most people think SOS, the universal distress call, means "Save Our Ships" or "Save Our Souls", but neither is correct.
In reality, the three letters do not stand for anything. When Samuel Morse developed the Morse Code, he needed a simple distress call, one that those with little knowledge of the code could do. Only O and S consist of three identical signals. The O is three dashes and the S is three dots. Since a dot is shorter than a dash, he decided on SOS to minimize the time to transmit.
The moral of this story? Behind every good man is one great woman. At least it was true in this case (and many others).
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
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