Toilet soap, cleanliness, and imperialism

Soap, in some form or other, has been used by humans for millennia, with the oldest surviving products dating back to the ancient Babylonian period. Come the Industrial Revolution and the growth of mass consumption, distinct brands were formulated and aggressively marketed. Yet how could an advertisement for something as everyday as soap possibly be exciting, or indeed distinctive?

Prominent manufacturers such as Pears’ Soap (still in existence today) tried every advertising angle when promoting their products. Pears’ depicted the most famous actress of the day holding a bar of their soap; they paid a leading pre-Raphaelite artist for the right to use his material in an advertisement; and they tapped into dominant narratives of racist imperialism in order to sell as much soap as possible. Their most famous advertising image is probably Millais’ whimsical painting, Bubbles, and their most infamous is the 1884 advertisement showing a white child scrubbing away the ‘blackness’ from another child, which appears jolly delighted with the result.

Bubbles: Millais' painting used to advertise Pears' Soap
Bubbles: Millais’ painting used to advertise Pears’ Soap
A Pears' Soap advertisement based on the fable Washing the Blackamoor White
A Pears’ Soap advertisement based on the fable ‘Washing the Blackamoor White’
More overtly political messages could also be found in Pears’ Soap advertisements. The concept of the White Man’s Burden – the duty of the superior white race to civilise the black savages – is illustrated in an advertisement from the 1890s in which spreading cleanliness is used as a justification for imperialism. The text reads: “The first step towards lightening the White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pears’ Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilisation advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place – it is the ideal toilet soap.”
 Pears' Soap advert

 

A contemporary advertisement for an American brand, Ivory Soap, follows along in much the same vein, caricaturing Native Americans and featuring a cheery poem:

 

Said Uncle Sam: “I will be wise,
And thus the Indian civilize:
Instead of guns, that kill a mile,
Tobacco, lead, and liquor vile,
Instead of serving out a meal,
Or sending Agents out to steal,
I’ll give, domestic arts to teach,
A cake of IVORY SOAP to each.

 

“Before it flies the guilty stain,
The grease and dirt no more remain;
‘Twill change their nature day by day,
And wash their darkest blots away.
They’ll turn their bows to fishing-rods,
And bury hatchets under sods [earth],
In wisdom and in worth increase,
And ever smoke the pipe of peace;
For ignorance can never cope
With such a foe as IVORY SOAP.”

A Pears' Soap advertisement based on the fable Washing the Blackamoor White

 

An even more preposterous Ivory Soap advertisement from 1888 reads as follows:

 

“We once were factious, fierce, and wild.
To peaceful arts unreconciled;
Our blankets smeared with grease and stains
From buffalo-meat and settlers’ veins.
Through summer’s dust and heat content,
From moon to moon unwashed we went;
But IVORY SOAP came like a ray
Of light across our darkened way.

 

“And now we’re civil, kind, and good,
And keep the laws as people should.
We wear our linen, lawn, and lace
As well as folks with paler face.
And now I take, where’er we go,
This cake of IVORY SOAP to show
What civilized my squaw and me,
And made us clean and fair to see”.
The great irony is, of course, that the Native Americans are depicted as anything but ‘fair to see’; they are grotesque, bestial parodies.

 

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