History Matters: Lathering Up with Soap

By David A. Fryxell Premium

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Babylonians already had invented soap around 2800 BC, but the slippery stuff was hit-and-miss with our ancestors until as recently as a century ago. That’s when advertising started selling us soap sex appeal.

In 1910, the Andrew Jergens Co. was about to jettison Woodbury’s Facial Soap, a brand it had acquired nine years earlier, because of underwhelming sales. But Jergens gave it one last shot, turning to the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, which assigned the account to Helen Lans­downe and her new Women’s Editorial Department. For the first time, women were in charge of marketing to other women, applying “feminine habits of thought.” Resulting ads emphasized the consumer’s concerns, such as “Conspicuous nose pores—how to reduce them.” The following year, Lansdowne introduced the slogan “A skin you love to touch,” and the modern business of selling soap was born.

Along with earlier campaigns such as Ivory Soap’s “It Floats” and the Pears Soap ads that made Sir John Everett Millais’ painting Bubbles one of England’s best-known images, advertising achieved what nearly 5,000 years of chemistry had failed to do: Convince people that soap was essential to cleanliness—and that cleanliness itself was a good idea.

The Rise and Fall of Soap

The formula for soap has changed little since ancient times: Boil fat or oil with an alkali (originally, ashes) to create soap and glycerin. Such a formula was found on a Babylonian clay tablet and on an Egyptian papyrus from 1550 BC. But it’s likely the ancients used soap more to clean their clothes than wash their bodies.

Even though the ancient Romans probably gave us the word soap, they preferred to swathe their bodies with oil and scrape themselves clean with a strigil. One story, probably apocryphal, says soap is named after Mount Sapo, from where animal tallow and wood ash—byproducts of sacrifices—washed into the Tiber River. Women washing their clothes on the shores had better success with the resulting suds. Romans also were known to use soap as hair pomade.

By the second century AD, however, soap had caught on enough that the Greek physician Galen in his writings recommended using it for bathing. The best soaps, according to Galen, came from Germany and Gaul.

But the shower curtain came down on soap’s brief popularity after Rome’s fall and the ensuing Dark Ages, when people had bigger problems than body odor. By the late sixth century, soap had made a comeback in Italy; Naples boasted a soapmakers’ guild. In France, Marseilles became a center of soap production. The English began making soap in the 12th century, causing the monk Richard of Devizes to complain about the stink of soap production in Bristol in 1192. London had a Soper’s Lane, which presumably smelled no better, by the 15th century.

England’s subsequent high taxes on soap, however, reduced its popularity into the 19th century. Soapmakers were required to padlock their pans, and the key was given to a taxman who had to be present at each boiling, for which 12 hours’ notice was required.

Soapmakers arrived in America with the second ship to Jamestown, but for most of the nation’s early history, soap was homemade. Pioneer women made soap in conjunction with the annual butchering of farm animals, using their tallow.

The Evolution of Soap

Industrial-scale soap production became possible with several scientific breakthroughs. In 1791, French chemist Nicolas Leblanc developed an inexpensive way to make soda ash from common salt. Twenty years later, another French chemist, Michel Eugène Chevreul, patented a manufacturing process based on his new understanding of the workings of oils, fats and what he named glycerine. The Leblanc process was supplanted in 1861 by Belgian Ernest Solvay’s “ammonia process,” which made soda ash from salt brine and limestone.

Soon soap began to come from factories instead of home kitchens. One of the first factory-produced soaps was Pears, which Andrew Pears started making on a small scale in London in 1789. Thomas J. Barratt, who married Pears’ great-granddaughter, took over the firm in the 1860s and ramped up production at a factory in Isleworth. He also launched a marketing campaign to convince people that cleanliness was next to godliness (for which Barratt enlisted the popular religious leader Henry Ward Beecher). Sometimes called the father of modern advertising, Barratt also got endorsements from celebrities such as actress Lillie Langtry. In 1897, he introduced Pears Shilling Cyclopaedia, a soap promotion that became a staple of the British reference shelf to the present day. Most memorably, Barratt created the Bubbles ad campaign using Millais’ painting—modified by the addition of a bar of Pears soap.

William Hesketh Lever and James Lever founded the marketing-savvy Lever Brothers in 1885. They made famous such brands as Sunlight, Lux, Vim and Lifebuoy. The distinctive Lifebuoy, the first soap to use carbolic acid, would later be promoted by the slogan, “Knocks out B.O.”—one of the first uses of that abbreviation for body odor.

On this side of the Atlantic, English immigrant William Procter and Irish immigrant James Gamble founded Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati in 1837. Contracts to supply the Union army with soap and candles during the Civil War not only boosted P&G’s bottom line but introduced their wares to millions of military men, who continued buying the products after returning home. As the legend goes, in 1879 a production accident mixed extra air into what Gamble originally wanted to call P&G White Soap. The resulting bars of soap—renamed Ivory—were lighter than water, inspiring the slogan, “The soap that floats.”

Perhaps Lansdowne had learned a thing or two from P&G growing up in Cincinnati. She rose quickly at the J. Walter Thompson ad agency, and even after her marriage continued to create memorable campaigns that “supplied the feminine point of view.”

Provocatively promising “Skin you love to touch,” Woodbury’s soap sales soared. Ads in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal went beyond selling soap to suggest softness, femininity and sex appeal. Advertising—and soap—would never be the same, and the world would be a little bit cleaner.

Timeline for Soap

312 BC Romans build their first baths
ca. 1616 Castile soap, probably the first hard white soap, is first made in Spain from olive oil
1791 Leblanc Process paves the way for industrial soap production
1853 Britain abolishes a soap tax, costing the government millions of pounds
1865 William Shepphard patents the first liquid soap
1879 P&G introduces Ivory Soap
1895 Lever Brothers creates Lifebuoy, touted for its antiseptic properties
1898 B.J. Johnson Soap Co. unveils Palmolive
1916 A WWI fat shortage leads to the first synthetic detergent

Fun Facts About Soap

Early Romans made a soap-like substance using urine.

John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, asked his wife in 1630 to bring soap when she made the Atlantic crossing.

Soap is mentioned twice in the Old Testament, in the books of Jeremiah and Malachi.

From the July 2010 Family Tree Magazine

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