Art historian Jenn Marshall tells us about a 1920s marketing gimmick that helped make soap a permanent fixture in Americans’ lives.
BRIAN: In hindsight, it’s clear that soap was emphatically not a fad. And part of the reason why is that the soap industry exerted some serious marketing muscle to make sure soap stuck around. It even created something called The Cleanliness Institute that pushed public schools to make cleaning up part of the curriculum.
Jenn Marshall is an art historian at the University of Minnesota. She told me about a particularly innovative soap campaign that was launched by Procter & Gamble in 1924. It was a nationwide competition for the best soap sculpture.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: Supposedly, the idea comes from Edward Bernays, Ed Bernays, who is behind so many sort of mass marketing campaigns in this period, and so adept.
BRIAN: Really the father of public relations.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: Yes, very well known as such.
-We worked for Proctor & Gamble for several decades. I think it was 30 years.
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JENNIFER MARSHALL: Bernays talks about getting the idea from a professional sculptor. In fact, a woman named Brenda Putnam–
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JENNIFER MARSHALL: –who was an elected member of the National Academy of Design. And she supposedly wrote to P&G and asked for just sort of a gigantic, uncut block of Ivory so she could work that in her studio. Maybe an apocryphal story but a good one.
So Bernays thinks that’s genius and thinks that this could really sort of be a contest that P&G could run, that could really sort of spark the curiosity and the artistry of, again, the household wife and mother but also her children and even perhaps her puttering husband.
-Within a year’s time, children in the public schools were sculpting in Ivory soap and loving it as not only a creative medium but also as a medium for cleanliness.
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JENNIFER MARSHALL: The year of the first annual contest, in 1924, they received 500 entries. And all of these would be assigned numbers and looked over carefully by judges. The academic and much beloved sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh weighed in. Gutzon Borglum, who carved Mount Rushmore during the same period, he was a judge.
BRIAN: So these were big names in the art world.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: And it legitimizes the contests. C
BRIAN: I’ll bet.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: It turns out then that by 1931, they’re getting over 5,000 entries.
BRIAN: Describe some of these sculptures for me.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: There’s a fair amount of devotional art, a fair amount of sort of Virgin and Child, a fair amount even of crucifixes. But the ones that really sort of win these contests, and the ones that are reproduced in the art magazines of the time, are largely Classical Revival style.
So a whole lot of headless torsos, bodies with no arms and legs, no heads. But look, especially when they’re cropped and reprinted in the pages of Art and Archaeology Magazine, they look like they could easily be just pieces of classical marble.
BRIAN: Do we have any idea about the people who were carving these sculptures? Were these housewives? What was the gender breakdown?
JENNIFER MARSHALL: Yeah.
BRIAN: Who were these people?
JENNIFER MARSHALL: It is certainly broken down fairly evenly between men and women, I would say. Soap carving was also heavily promoted as a therapeutic tool for helping at-risk youth. The YMCA is using it in their urban centers.
There’s an article in 1936 that touts its benefits in keeping kids who were otherwise in gangs, giving them something to do with their hands and their minds, so that they might discipline themselves and become sort of saved from the criminal tendencies they were otherwise prone to.
BRIAN: And why soap? I mean–
JENNIFER MARSHALL: –why soap: Right.
BRIAN: –why couldn’t carving a block of wood serve therapeutic purposes for these kids?
JENNIFER MARSHALL: The official line is that soap is easy and affordable. It doesn’t incur the same risks to your fingers as wood carving does, because you don’t need such sharp implements. You can do this with a butter knife. This is a very forgiving medium in that sense.
And you can use the mistakes. You know, you can still shower with it. So that’s the pragmatic answer.
But I think if it’s supposed to improve your mind, if it’s supposed to improve your sense of discipline and deliberation and moderation, it’s cultivating a sort of hand-mind habit that’s elevated and good and therapeutic and a sort of process of self-improvement that you’re going through with the carving.
Yes, that’s true for other media. But soap already promises to do that anyway. It’s already a medium that promises self-improvement, that promises self-purification in the ways we think of from hygiene. So it’s nicely metaphoric.
BRIAN: So it’s as though some of the purity and cleanliness of soap might rub off on–
JENNIFER MARSHALL: –yes, right–
BRIAN: –the people carving it.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: Right, right, right.
BRIAN: Well, Jenn, thanks so much. This has been truly illuminating.
JENNIFER MARSHALL: Yeah, no, it’s a great story.
BRIAN: Jenn Marshall is a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota.