Wednesday, 5 June 2013

We Get on Our Soap Box and Rant for a Bit about Colonialism

We've been even more historically minded than usual recently, and have, in fact, had many clever and original thoughts on everything from the Berlin Conference to rubber ducks. However, we won't bother you with them; we've got much more intriguing material! What do colonisation, palm oil plantations and the drive to "civilise" the world's heathen savages have in common? Why, soap of course!
Stubbing our toes on some interesting vintage soap advertising, we thought we'd do a feature on this, for your edification and delight.

Rudyard Kipling published his poem The White Man's Burden in 1899.
It proved surprisingly useful for soap merchants, who used it
to imply that soap spreads civilisation. "Civilisation", in colonial-speak,
usually meant "sit tight while we take all your resources
and suck your country dry."
Image from wwnorton.

Caption says:
Pears' soap in the Soudan
Even if our invasion of the Soudan has done nothing else
it has at any rate left the Arab something to puzzle his fuzzy head over,
for the legend "Pears' soap is the best' inscribed in huge white
characters on the rock which marks the farthest point of our advance
towards Berber, will tax all the wits of the Dervishes of the desert
to translate." - Phil Robinson, war correspondent (in the Soudan)
of the Daily Telegraph in London, 1884.

Harrrumpf. Cucumber sandwich, anyone?
Image from

Caption says:
The birth of civilisation - a message from the sea.
"Consumption of soap is the measure of wealth, civilisation,
wealth, and purity of the people." - Liebig

Read Justus von Liebig's Familiar Letters on Chemistry here.
Interestingly, as well as having views on the civilising effects of soap,
von Liebig is also credited with being the father
of the fertiliser industry, meaning he paved the way
for unprecedented agricultural productivity and
a previously unimaginable increase in the human population.
Read more about it in this interesting book by Robert B. Marks.
Image from Ebay.

Caption says:
"I have found Pears' soap matchless for the hands and complexion."
Luckily, if you're thinkin' about my baby, it don't matter if you're black or white.
Image from kaufmann.

Soap ads verily took some very strange turns. This one is from 1899
and features a déshabillé witch on a broom, writing the name "Pears" in the sky.
We assume sales skyrocketed after this went public.
Image from

An Australian man insists that Last Xmas I used Pears' soap.
Is this an early instance of choreplay?
Image from Museum Victoria.
Because hygiene and homoeroticism go so well together.
Not least of the pleasures of the game is the bath that follows it.

Hygeia lustily agrees!
Image from kaufmann.

Last but not least: Is your life plagued by drudgery?
Fear not - help is at hand!
(Just bloody well make sure you have a mixer tap, like this lucky woman.)
Image from

Phew. That was quite a heavy post! Let's finish with an invigorating song!

Read more on the Victorian/Edwardian-era obsession with cleanliness in two of our favourite books, The Victorian House by Judith Flanders (read more about it here), and Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness, by Suellen Hoy.

Related Reading
Book Club: Cocoa and Corsets
Toilet Song: Soda Soap
Not Nearly Enough Monkey Business
The Privy Counsel Book Club: At Home
Victorian Servants Have Taken Over the Book Club

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...