Segment from Rinse and Repeat

The Dirt on Soap 1

BackStory producer Jess Engebretson gives us a glimpse into soap’s upward mobility: from the laundry maid’s bucket to the middle-class bathroom sink.

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And speaking of toiletries, that brings us to soap. One of our producers, Jess Engebretson, has been looking into the early days of soap in America. Here she is to tell us what she found.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: Back in the early 19th century, soap didn’t have quite the aura it has today. Sure, people used it for laundry. But it wasn’t something you wanted on your skin. It was, well, kind of gross. See, soap was made from tallow, the rendered fat of sheep or cows. So the soap making trade tended to operate near slaughterhouses.

The work was hot and exhausting, and it smelled foul. The final product was a big slab, like an enormous piece of cheese. If you wanted to buy some, you just asked the grocer to slice off a hunk for you.

And forget about Dove or Irish Spring. These soaps had bland names, like Number 1 and Extra Number 1.

But by the mid-19th century, all that began to change. New magazines targeted at women were taking off. Some of them offered novel hygiene tips, like wash your face with soap and water to help remove oil.

American soap makers began looking to their Parisian counterparts, who had long produced delicate facial washes made with ingredients like almonds and adder of rose. Those soaps had been seen as cosmetics, not cleaning agents.

American entrepreneurs like Proctor & Gamble saw an opening. What if they could make a soap that was both cosmetic and cleansing? It would be delicate enough for the face but strong enough for the laundry. That soap was Ivory.

When it first came out in 1879, it was a revolutionary idea and required some explaining. A Procter & Gamble booklet of frequently asked questions posed the conundrum, is the Ivory a toilet or a laundry soap? The answer was, marvelously, both.


–Laundry soaps have an unpleasant odor and are too strong to use on the skin. And toilet soaps are too expensive to use in the laundry. But Ivory soap is so perfectly made that there is no better for the toilet and bath. And it’s sold at such a reasonable price that it can be used economically in the laundry.


JESS ENGEBRETSON: Soap was no longer just for the elegant Parisian lady or the laundry maid. It was for the modern middle-class American woman. Other soap makers jumped on the bandwagon. And soap production doubled between 1870 and 1890. Even men were using it. For the next few decades, soap looked like an unequivocal success story.

Then, in the 1920s, another fad grabbed hold of America, cosmetics. Suddenly American women had new ways to make their faces fresh and lovely. Soap manufacturers worried that powders and face creams might usurp soap’s dominant place at the bathroom sink.

At the same time, fewer men were working as farmers or laborers, the kind of jobs that really made you sweat. And the streets were cleaner, too, thanks to city sanitation campaigns. What if people just weren’t dirty enough to keep buying soap? The soap makers began to worry that their product might just be a fad whose time had past.

PETER: That’s Jess Engebretson, one of our producers.