A Brief History of Soap
Soap has a lot to do with colonialism. This is what I learned this week. The social history of hygiene is really interesting, and it is very much related to the history of cosmetics and beauty commodities around the world. Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women by Timothy Burke and Imperial Leather by Anne McClintock are two great reads to pick up if you’re interested in the role that soap played in “civilizing” Africa.
It is during the 1880s and the Victorian era that a “commodity racism” associated with soap and personal hygiene appeared. The colonial disdain for African bodies which were considered unbearably smelly, filthy, ugly, and pathologically dirty meant that they were to be trained in personal hygiene. Unilever, whose slogan was “Soap is civilization” produced some fascinating soap ads during this period.
“The first step to lightening the White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pear’s Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilisation advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place – it is the ideal toilet soap.”
“The Formula of British Conquest: 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. Pears soap is the best.”
“The Birth of Civilization: A Message from the Sea. The consumption of soap is a measure of the wealth, civilisation, health and purity of the people.”
Today, Unilever continues to market Pears Soap, Lux, Lifebuoy and Vaseline–all household brands in nearly every corner of Africa, products which have quite interesting colonial legacies. It is also the company behind Fair and Lovely, the all too famous skin-lightening cream which is rife across Africa and parts of Asia where skin bleaching among women is a major public health issue. It is however surprising that the same company is behind the Dove brand which is well-known for its “campaign for real beauty.”