In British English, cotton socks is used:
– in the phrase (God) bless my cotton socks and variants, which are exclamations of surprise, consternation, pleasure, etc.
– in the phrase bless another’s cotton socks and variants, which express affection, benevolence or gratitude.
The earliest occurrence that I have found is from the beginning of Nig and Nog the Hallo Moon Twins. By Uncle Mac and Uncle Ernest, a children’s story published in the Sheffield Independent (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of Monday 23rd June 1930—Nig and Nog were two cheerful pointy-headed imps who lived on the moon to keep the Man in the Moon awake; ‘Uncle Mac’ was the BBC Radio producer and presenter Derek McCulloch (1897-1967), and ‘Uncle Ernest’ was the cartoonist Ernest Noble (1881-19–)—the fact that cotton socks, first used in the exclamation, is then taken literally may indicate that the phrase was already well established at that time:
Every morning, wet or fine, they will appear without fail.
“Bless me and my cotton socks!” said the caretaker, and then he said “Oh!” which proved that he was wearing cotton socks, because he trod on a big splinter in the floor and was dancing about like a fly on hot buns. The sight of his quaint antics excited Nig and Nog to still more efforts, and the bells rang louder than before, until the poor caretaker really began to get scared and wonder whether he was walking in his sleep or having a nightmare.
This is the illustration by Ernest Noble for Nig and Nog the Hallo Moon Twins, published in the Sheffield Independent of 23rd June 1930:
The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from the column Across the Table, by ‘Artemus’, published in The Hendon Times and Guardian (London, England) of Friday 30th October 1931:
Hush! Not a word! Rubber shoes, please, and converse with me in shorthand! Every person is liable to a penalty of £5 who shall engage in audible conversation in any reference department or reading room of the Hendon library after having been requested not to do so by an officer or servant of the Local Authority. That is the effect of one of the bye-laws of the Hendon Council. I tremble to think it might cost me a fiver to say, “I beg your pardon” or “Frightfully sorry, old fruit” to the officer who finds me singing “Rule Britannia” in the reference library, and requests me to “put a sock in it.”
The Risk He Ran.
And by George! Here’s another. “A person shall not lie on the benches, chairs, tables, or floor of the library.” Bless my cotton socks! I once helped to restore a man who was taken suddenly ill in the library, and we persuaded him to lie down for a few minutes. No wonder his recovery was prompt if he knew he was in danger of losing what might have been his last five pound note.
The British novelist and short-story writer Gerald Kersh (1912-1968) used the phrase on two occasions in Men are so Ardent (London: Wishart Books, Ltd., 1935), a novel set in London:
“Why, my hubby was connected with Mogador. Lord bless my little cotton socks, I’ve got money invested with Mogador! He’s a big man.”
“Hey, look at her . . . just look at her . . . making googoo eyes at Pasta’s millionaire. God bless my cotton socks, Pasta’ll cut her liver out for that.”
The following is from The Western Times (Exeter, Devon, England) of Friday 11th October 1935:
A preliminary skirmish for cash in the shape of whist drives, jumble sales, etc., precedes the coming Carnival in order to increase for the hospitals, etc.. what Mr. Mantalini called the demnition [sic] total.
So boys bring maid or jolly pal
To our wondrous carnival.
Bring confetti and your toys.
Help to make a joyful noise.
Bless your little cotton socks,
Keep hospital off the rocks.
Every little offering tells
Louder than a peal of bells.
Bang the cymbals, twang the lyre,
Let folks think the town’s on fire.
Hey, hey, ninny, nonny, no,
Bring your purses to the show.
The phrase was used punningly in the following from the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Monday 3rd April 1972:
Bless their little cotton socks!
Holidays usually mean travel. And travel doesn’t agree with everyone. It can bring all sorts of problems.
Prolonged journeys by car, train or plane sometimes result in swollen feet or ankles in susceptible people where there aren’t facilities for exercise.
Some airlines provide cotton socks on the longer journeys to replace shoes.