The Soap that Floats and Other Wonders


And now a word from our sponsor…


Those particular words didn’t come into play until the radio, but advertising has been around since the beginning of mankind.  Cavemen painted billboards on rock walls and the ancient Romans printed advertisements for gladiatorial games on papyrus.


After the invention of the printing press, advertisements began appearing in newspapers and periodicals. Circulars were posted on chimneys, lamp posts, walls, wagons, fences—you name it.  Since painting the town with ads was considered a public spectacle, men with buckets of paste worked mostly at night. 


Ads were designed not only to sell products, but also to solve personal and social problems. In many cases, people were oblivious to such personal shame as body odor or halitosis until some thoughtful marketer pointed it out.



and Sensibilities

Looking back, we can’t help but laugh at some of the strange wording used to avoid offending customers.   During the 1800s the word limb was used for leg and white meat for chicken breast.  No one dare mention pants or trousers in polite company.  This posed a challenge for marketers. 


The Scott Company, embarrassed to advertise toilet paper in the 1880s, came  up with a unique solution: they customized rolls for their clients. The Waldorf Hotel became a big name in toilet paper and when a customer walked into a general store and requested a roll of Waldorf, no questions were asked. 


Speaking of toilet paper, Northern Tissue advertised “splinter-free” toilet paper in 1935.  If that doesn’t want to make you go “ouch” consider this: the “cure” for a certain male condition currently blasted nightly from the TV was, in the late 1800s, thought to be electric belts.


The westward migration spurred advertisements for real estate, investments and tourism.  In 1860 the Pony Express advertisement in California read: “Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”


The Civil War created a great need for clothes, shoes and readymade food and advertisements during the era reflected the new consumerism. 


Writers hear a lot about “branding” today, and we can thank the patent medicine companies of yesteryear for that.  By touting exotic ingredients, producers could distinguish themselves from competitors.  Other companies followed suit and slogans like the “soap that floats” became increasingly popular. 



 It’s Wonderful, Amazing, Spectacular…


Exaggeration was the order of the day and no one was better at reeling off adjectives than Richard Sears.  Eventually, Sears toned down the ads and was said to have concluded: “Honesty is the best policy. I know because I’ve tried it both ways.”


Honesty didn’t come easy for some advertisers and reform was needed. 1892, the Ladies’ Home Journal announced it would no longer accept patent medicine ads. The bogus potions were costing Americans millions of dollars per year, and were coming under heavy attack by commentators and consumers.


“In our factory,

we make lipstick.

In our advertising,

we sell hope.”


Women purchased most of the household goods and so it made sense to have women create the ads.  As early as the 1900s advertisers welcomed female employees.  The first advertisement to use sex was for Woodbury soap and was created by a woman.  Tame by today’s standards, the advertisement featured a couple and the message “The skin you love to touch.”  Not only did this raise eyebrows, but it promised sex, romance and love to anyone savvy enough to buy the product.  It worked:  Sales skyrocketed.


Studying advertisements is a great way to learn the customs, concerns, prejudices and history of earlier times.  I shudder to think what future generations will learn from ours.


What are your favorite or least favorite ads?


 Speaking of ads….


Want to be younger, richer, thinner?

Then read Margaret’s book!


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14 thoughts on “The Soap that Floats and Other Wonders”

  1. I love looking at historic ads, although I’ve never seen the one for the “soap that floats.”

    Most of the time I ignore ads and commercials, but the one for GEICO where the dad gets his children a opossum instead of a puppy cracks me up every time.


  2. Margaret, I always look forward to your post. Smiles guaranteed, along with interesting information.

    Among others I currently like, the Old Spice adds that roll like a list of all the standard romance tropes is well done. His voice and looks don’t hurt either.

    I am not pleased with all the adds for prescription medications, especially those for “male performance enhancing drugs. So much for offending sensibilities. Seems they need to reinstitute the 1892 Ladies’ Home Journal decision not to accept patent medicine ads. They should not be products patients should be requesting anyway. Too many people are shopping for ailments.

    I have old issues of the Ladies’ Home Journal – 1917 or so during WWI. The ads and articles make for interesting reading. Just going back to the 1940′ and 50’s is fun.

    Thanks for another fun and interesting post.

  3. Patricia, thank you!

    Yes, I agree. Today’s prescription drugs seem similar to the old patent medicine drugs. I guess they figure that listing all the possible side effects makes it okay.

  4. My favorite ads are Hallmark ads. They speak straight to my heart, although I make most of the cards that I send.

    I too dilike the perscription medicine ads as well as personal product ads but I cannot see them disapearing anytime soon….money talks.

    And I loved your little commercial!

  5. Hi Connie, I like the Hallmark ads, too.

    I wish I could write a book that really does make the reader younger, thinner and richer. Wouldn’t that be something?

    Thanks for sharing?

  6. Although I dislike the personal products and performance drugs… I still kinda chuckle at the drug commercial where the last shot is if a couple in separate claw-foot tubs staring off into the distance….. I mean — what the heck — if these people were soooo romantic… wouldn’t they at least be in the SAME tub???

  7. Margaret, this is soooo interesting! Love your posts! I really never thought too much about this, except for when I was a teenager and Mom would get soooo disgusted when they would advertise “feminine products”. She’d say, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing we’re not in mixed company right now!” And if my dad was watching with us, they’d both get fidgety if I was there, too. LOLLOL I love the Hallmark ads, and those “Kodak moments” always made me bawl like a big ol’ third grade girl when they came on. LOL But that’s the reaction they were hoping to get, and they got it. My least favorite ads now are those stupid ones where the little bear is going to the bathroom…ugh.

  8. Enjoyed reading the comments. My favorite ads are the GEICO ones with the gecko in them. I dislike the one with the elderly lady saying “That’s for old people” she says she fell down the stairs and used their product. Well, what in the world is an old lady carrying a big basket of clothes down the stairs for anyway. geez
    I remember the Ivory floats ads too. It actually does float.

  9. Cheryl, thanks for sharing. In the 1900s, shop owners had such a hard time trying to figure out how to display feminine products, Kotex held a special meeting to discuss the problem.

    I don’t like dumb commercials, either.

  10. Hey, when you’re a kid, in the bathtub, you could always find the soap—because it floated! That’s why we liked soap that floats.
    It didn’t matter if it was good soap, or if it smelled. It floated. The other soaps, now, sink right to the bottom and you can’t find them. But who takes a BATH anymore, anyway. I haven’t taken a BATH in years! HAHAHA
    I can still smell that soap, too. It was good stuff. How they made it float, I haven’t any idea.
    I have never understood the significance of the two bathtubs. Agreed–wouldn’t they want to be more intimate?
    I love the old ads. Ivory Snow Flakes was great if you wanted to make FAKE whipped cream, too. I wasn’t a mean kid, really. I just remember other kids doing this…

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