AMC’s “Mad Men” has nothing on late 1800’s – mid 1900’s vintage soap advertising!
Life imitates art!
Babylonians were the first one to master the art of soap making around 2800 BC. Soap got its name, according to an ancient Roman legend, from Mount Sapo, where animals were sacrificed. Rain washed a mixture of melted animal fat, or tallow, and wood ashes down into the clay soil along the Tiber River. Women found that this clay mixture made washing their clothing in the river a lot easier. The chemical mechanism that produces soap is called “saponification.” Soapmaking was an established craft in Europe by the seventh century.
The English began making soap during the 12th century. The soap business was so good that in 1622, King James I granted a monopoly to a soapmaker for $100,000 a year. Well into the 19th century, soap was heavily taxed as a luxury item in several countries. When the high tax was removed, soap became available to ordinary people, and cleanliness standards improved. Commercial soapmaking in the American colonies began in 1608 with the arrival of several soapmakers on the second ship from England to reach Jamestown, VA. An important advancement in soap technology was invented in the mid-1800s Belgian chemist, Ernest Solvay, in which he used common table salt, or sodium chloride, to make soda ash. Scientific discoveries like Solvay’s, together with the development of power to operate factories, made soapmaking one of America’s fastest-growing industries by 1850. At the same time, its broad availability changed soap from a luxury item to an everyday necessity. With this widespread use came the development of milder soaps for bathing and soaps for use in the washing machines that were available to consumers by the turn of the century.
Advent of Soap Adverts
It was the toward the late 1880’s the first of the soap adverts appeared in print in newspapers and in magazines. Looking back, some of them are quite racist and sexist. We’ve come a long way. Thankfully, just as soap making evolved, so have our societal attitudes. Still, I am fascinated with the art and the vintage soap ad campaigns that reflect what was happening in American society. There’s a clear transition in ad messaging from the early 1900’s luxury to the 1940’s and the war.
And even though I have been making soap for years, and use sustainable organic palm oil and olive oil in my soap recipe, I never made the connection to the “Palmolive” brand until I began to look at vintage soap adverts. Duh!
*The vintage ads are shown here in fair use context. Every images is © by its’ original company or artist.
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