In observance of Black History Month, this 2013 post about a Dove Soap advertising campaign that fell completely flat (and for excellent reasons) which explores the concept of cleanliness is intertwined with cultural connotations of blackness and whiteness seems worth revisiting.
The week in business was a reminder that those who know little history are condemned to repeat it. Whether it was inadvertent or deliberate, Dove’s allusion to the ancient topos of turning dark-skinned people white to advertise soap, a product with a tradition of exploiting race in its promotion, was a public relations nightmare.
As CEO of Neutrogena, Mr. Cotsen accumulated ephemera about the product his company made that documented the history of promoting the product his company made. As a children’s book collector, he looked for illustrated pamphlets about soap that were either directed at children or featured child sponsors. Over the years he selected examples that offer really interesting insights into the way literature and the concepts of blackness and whiteness have been used to encourage cleanliness in the early twentieth century. Here are some of the most interesting ones…
Under the direction of advertising immortal Artemas Ward, Sapolio Soap drove old-fashioned general household cleaners like bath-brick and rotten-stone out of the cupboards of modern housewives. Among the brand’s sponsors were the precocious Gemini Twins, Luck and Pluck, featured here on a two-sided accordion-folded strip. Once they have cleaned all their friends and relations, the two chubbins mount a ladder into the sky and scrub the moon’s face shiny bright. So bright that the amount of light radiated increased exponentially.
Their boyish antics contrast sharply with the pictures on the other side of the strip showing female servants hard at work keeping the household’s silverware, dishes, metal, bath tubs, and marble mantels spotless with Sapolio. But only the African-American woman sings the product’s praises in dialect on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor.
Other soap manufacturers hired well-known author-illustrators to design promotional brochures that incorporated their iconic characters. Palmer Cox, the creator of the Brownies, was more than happy to let his little elves pitch all kinds of merchandise. Neither Cox nor the executives of Oakley’s American Glycerin Soap had any reservations about the Brownies breaking into the company’s premises to steal quantities of product to wash their faces.
Chicago firm N. K. Fairbanks commissioned E. W. Kemble, whose stereotypical illustrations of African-American children were considered adorable then, to draw those “dear little, queer little Gold Dust Twins” with their “rolling black eyes and roguish grins” making their work into play as if they were circus performers. Dressed only in their trademark short skirts, they romp barechested through the laundry, ironing, dish washing, pot scouring, mirror polishing, stair scrubbing, etc. in record time. The ugly old stereotype of the happy-go-lucky darky makes an appearance at the end of this ostensibly delightful brochure when the two break into a celebratory clog dance.
Here is a 1908 reimagining of the Gold Dust Twins by an uncredited artist for comparison. More submissive than the Kemble’s little imps, the ones here sign the text to the lady of the house as “your servants” and they are depicted as bald with coal black skin and big red fleshy lips.
One of the most intriguing brochures in the collection is this one published by Larkin Soap. It contains a heartwarming story of girlish entrepreneurial spirit: Fannie admires the Chatauqua Desk at Margaret’s house and learns that if she sells just $10.00 of Larkin Soap to friends and family (just two afternoons’ work, according to Margaret), she too can purchase her own solid oak desk! The second story on the back panel which brings us back full circle to this week’s misfired Dove advertisement. Three Turkish princes are spurned by three “white Caucasian maids” until they agree to try and “erase the dark disgrace with the help of Sweet Home Soap.” The bars of soap works their magic and turns the boys’ faces milky white, removing all obstacles to immediate marriages.
This story is a variant of the Aesopian fable, known as “The Ethiopian washed white” or “The Blackamoor,” in which the master foolishly believes that the dark skin of his new enslaved man is simply dirt and filth. He orders the man to be washed clean, but of course, his servants can make no “progress” and succeed causing the poor man’s death from cold. Obviously, this fable cannot be included in anthologies for children and probably only older adults remember it. Below is one of the less objectionable illustrations of the fable by William Mulready that appeared in William Godwin’s Fables.At the turn of the nineteenth century, however, children were still being exposed to the trope of washing a dark-skinned person or thing skin white.
Rudyard Kipling’s “How the Leopard Got His Spots” also plays with the idea that skin color can be altered and the resulting transformation is life changing. To survive in a new environment, the Ethiopian must change his skin from “greyish, brownish-yellowish” to black. In order to help his hunting companion the leopard, he stamps spots on his coat using the excess pigment on his fingers…
There’s some profit in knowing a thing or two about the history of children’s books, even if for titans of business…