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.”


~ by misswretched on October 10, 2008.

10 Responses to “A Brief History of Soap”

  1. I never thought about soap and colonialism. Its funny that you mention this in Undergrad i remember reading a book, by a famous Anthropologist, for the life of me I can’t remember the name. Anyway she talked a lot about the ‘other’ and ‘otherness’ and how it was constructed around rituals of clean and unclean. And how there is this obsession in society with cleanliness that is influenced by the need to keep certain people outside the comforts of society. She went back and talked about the Red Tent, for menstruation in bible times and she also talk about rituals of cleansing. I think that would be good to investigate how these rituals are connected to the colonial mission. I also wanted to mention briefly that I have been looking at colonial products and advertising and it never ceases to amaze me how so many companies received commercial success and dominance through colonization. (I will try and remember that authors name)

  2. Wow is all I have to say! And it is interesting that the same company with this sordid history is the same one that is now campaigning so hard for ‘real beauty’ Go figure.

  3. it may also interest you that in the 1500’s soaps from what we now call ghana were placed under and import ban in portugal because they were feted!! so so much for it being a european thing!!! info from

    robin walker’s book when we ruled published by every generation media

  4. chepchumba, I believe the book is called “black skin, white face” or something to the effect.

  5. An ironical conversation I remember from the biography of a South Indian woman goes somewhat like this – the nun at a missionary school where this young Indian Hindu girl is studying, comments on how some Indian traits are ‘repulsive’. The girl asks the nun to elaborate, and the Indian traits or habits that the nun finds repulsive are, it turns out, ‘taking a bath everyday’ and ‘not eating meat’!
    For all the patronizing of their Arab and African subjects, when the Europeans first started exploring and colonizing, they were not particularly known for their personal hygiene!

  6. Unilever is definitely racist! They have an ad for Lux (which means luxor=Lucifer, as they are Illuminati associated) from the 50’s or 60’s where a steretypical looking black woman in slave drag is bathing a black child in a round wooden tub outside. The woamn is pouring soap powder into the tub. The little boy’s hair is covered in soap suds and in the shape of a huge ball of wool. The ad states that it’s guaranteed not to dry out wool.

    Nobody can tell me that Unilever NEVER WAS or STILL ISN’T RACIST! They still are. The latest Dove saop ad with the black woman on the before side and the Latina and white woman on the after side is blatanly obvious. They may as well have said “Dove will make you anything but black!”

    Shame that some people still think that way in 2011! But what can you expect from a bunch of satanist. Back in the day, I’m pretty sure they had KKK connections! Sad!

  7. Unilever was a racist. The people of that epoch could not be since we are nowadays, it would be absurd. The soap in the 19th century was not in use normally, since the people were having a shower in the rivers, there were showers as nowadays, not even towels, this way that we cannot compare to these people and say that it was not adapted to the civilization. It cannot say that the black people are ugly, and to say that his smell is unbearable, when they had to adapt to the situation of that epoch.

  8. I didn`t know this relation between colonialism and soap.

    The british people and the europeans in those years were ridiculous. They would think that they were better than the “dark corners of the earth” because they had an industrial revolution, I think that´s not enough to think you are superior.
    But they thought that African Americans were inferior because their skiin color (so they needed to use soap) an their life style. As we all know that´s stupid.
    You don´t need soap if you have nature were you can clean yourself( lakes, rivers…), and they had their own life style with their own culture. They didn`t need machines and new stuff.
    They had been living like that for the whole history, so I think that their way to live was effective, so they werený uncivilized. They dind`t need to be taught by other people that used to think that the only good way to live is their own way.

    So I think we have to respect all the cultures and of course we shouldn´t be racist, because I think we are all exactly the same humans beings.

  9. What about the Babylonians who had been making and using soap about 3000 years ago? They used the same ingredients that we use today for making natural soap. Does something becomes history only when a particular group of people wrote it? What about archaeological evidence? Did these socalled historians searched all over the world for evidence before making a conclusion. Anyway, civilization had its roots in the lower Mesopotamia (3500 BC), followed by Egyptian civilization along the Nile (3300 BC)and Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley (3300 BC).

  10. […] are many many blog posts and researcherly articles on this ad. I have only heard before that when the first of the new […]

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