The Gospel of Being Clean: How Harley Procter Used Religion to Sell Soap
In the spring of 1879, Harley Procter went to church. “All thy garments smell of myrrh and aloes and cassia out of ivory palaces whereby they have made thee glad.” the preacher read from the book of Psalms. It was as if the heavens opened, and a choir of angels sang in his ear. At last, he knew his search was over.
“Ivory,” he said with dazed reverence, “why, that’s the perfect name for my soap.”
The Pure Truth
Ivory was a nice name. It was certainly better than white soap, the name originally given to Procter and Gambles's new product. But that’s not what sent it to stardom. In Harvey’s day, soap was underdeveloped and under-appreciated. There was cheap soap rendered from animal fat with its mucky color, and smell, and luxury soaps. They were nicer, but unattainable for the average American. More importantly, the average Joe didn’t really give a hoot about soap. Joe bathed once a week, with the same soap his wife used to clean the floor. Life was too complicated to lament not lathering with something smelling like the morning mist, or apples in a north wind on a sunny day in September.
Now, Procter and Gamble started as a candle making company. However, James Gamble, one of the companies founders, was a soap maker. Gamble wanted a soap similar to European castile soap, with a nice clean color. That’s how he came up with his white soap. It was exactly what he wanted, but how would the company convince America they couldn't live without it?
The boys knew what they needed for success wasn’t just a great soap, they needed an experience. When Harley had his revelation in the church that Sunday, that’s exactly what he created.
Wake up and Smell the soap
Beginning in the 1850s America entered a period of renewed religious vigor referred to as the third great awakening. With people like Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday, religion was given new vitality. Harley realized he could harness the movement by making physical cleanliness synonymous with spiritual cleanliness. It would be a sure-fire way to change public opinion and increase sales. It was no accident, therefore, that the first ads for Ivory soap appeared in a December 1882 edition of The Independent, a Christian weekly. His creation of mass marketing coupled with religious alliances allowed Harley to change the reputation of that old humdrum soap. “Americans are the apostles of personal cleanliness . . . and we continue strong in our belief that cleanliness is akin to godliness,” one editorial proclaimed. “Wherever there is stainless white cleanliness, there you may find Ivory soap.”
Harley wasn’t the only one to associate his soap with spiritual purity. The John H Woodbury Company’s “Facial Purity League” developed a marketing campaign linking soap and religious virtue. People were invited to sign the league's pledge and send it back to the company. For a small fee, they would receive enrollment along with a purity league button. The campaign was a success, over 5000 buttons went out in less than two weeks.
Soapmaker BT Babbitt offered illustrated biblical scenes to customers who sent in 25 wrappers from their Babbitt’s Best soap while Wool soap donated a penny for each returned wrapper to the Chicago temple of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Protestant ministers began preaching the gospel according to Pears and Lifebuoy while the soap companies preached the good news in their ads. Even the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher proselytized for Pears soap “If cleanliness is next to godliness, soap must be considered as a means of grace and a clergyman who recommends moral things should be willing to recommend soap.”
We Know Clean — And You're Not it.
June 1927 saw the creation of the Cleanliness institute organized by the American Association of Soap and Glycerine Producers to protect and promote their products. Its stated mission was to teach and spread the doctrine of cleanliness, and to convince consumers they could never be clean enough “Cleanliness is something bigger than a cake of soap and a tub of water” said a 1927 issue of the Cleanliness Journal . . . cleanliness is an “immaculateness which seems divine.”
Information was distributed on everything from the Essentials of healthy living in1925, to the care of the face in 1927. Then came the book of baths in 1930. You would think it’s simple enough, but the institute managed to fill 24 pages with how-to’s. They preached on hot baths, cold baths, and tepid baths. There were baths to improve beauty and baths for children. The media went wild “Soap can be made one of the preservatives and safeguards of our basic social institutions” said the Minneapolis Tribune. “As it is with godliness so it is with cleanliness, there are millions without the desire to repent and be laved. We must continue to sell the world on cleanliness” added the Detroit Free Press.
Purifying a Whole Generation
Immigrants were taught the new doctrine as well. The book First Lessons in English for Foreigners in Evening Schools took the form of a catechism:
What is this?
That is soap.
What can you do with soap and water?
I wash my hands and face with soap and water.
What do you use the basin for?
I put the water into the basin.
Of course, if you want to change the world, change a generation. The Cleanliness Institute, with a large donation from Proctor and Gamble, produced children’s books and educational materials. “Cleanliness is our guardian angel in the material world,” declared one author. The idea was reiterated in songs of cleanliness, health plays, and toothbrush brigades. Children were reminded of the Greeks and Romans whose ablutions were used to prepare them to commune with their gods. Stories were told of the Pentateuch which “gave cleanliness of hands as a figure of speech for those who were innocent of evil and pure in heart.”
The campaign of cleanliness worked better than Harvey could have dreamed. By 1890 thirty million cakes of Ivory were being sold and by 1938 soap sales were second only to bread and butter. The good news of the miracles of soap had been incorporated into American theology.
Allegories of Progress: Industrial Religion in the United States: Richard J. Callahan, Jr., Kathryn Lofton and Chad E. Seales
Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 78, №1 (MARCH 2010), pp. 1–39
Oxford University Press