Friday, March 16, 2012

Out of Ivory Palaces

‘All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad.’ — Psalm 45:8, The King James Bible

For many, the idea of a soap that floats was possibly something akin to the thrill of sliced bread. Obviously it was before the day of soap dishes and showers, because the notion first caught the fancy of shoppers in 1897 after an accidental batch of floating soap from the White Soap factory. The company was flooded with letters from customers asking for more of the soap that didn’t get lost under murky water. It all began with a nameless factory worker who took a lunch break forgetting to turn off the master mixing machine for the soap vats. The extended mix time resulted in ‘too much’ air being whipped into the solution. The worker didn’t want to throw it all out, so poured it into hardening and cutting frames and sent it off. History was in the making and William Procter with his cousin James Gamble ordered that all White Soap from then on be whipped extra-long. At that time in 1879 it was called simply White Soap, but that all changed when Procter decided the name was too prosaic. One Sunday morning not long after, he was jarred by a word in the pastor’s reading of Psalm 45:8 and suddenly the new floating soap became Ivory Soap.

Somewhere around four thousand years ago the Hittite people of Asia Minor used the ash of soapwort leaves suspended in water to clean their hands. Around the same time the Sumerians also mixed alkali solutions for washing. Neither of these concoctions was soap, but close. In 600 BC the Phoenicians boiled goat fat, water and ash high in potassium carbonate that formed solid, waxy soap. The word ‘soap’ comes from either the Gaulish word sapo, or the Germanic word saipa. Both words correspond to the Latin sebum, meaning ‘fat’ or ‘tallow.’ Over the next twenty-two hundred years ‘soap’ remained the same product, though it might have been colored or scented. The first big development came with the mixing accident in Procter & Gamble’s White Soap factory, and the birth of Ivory Soap.

It was a fortunate coincidence for the company that the same month Ivory Soap debuted, Thomas Edison successfully tested the incandescent light bulb. That invention threatened dark days for candle manufacturers, but Procter was too astute to miss the warning sign. Half the business of Procter & Gamble was making and selling candles, but with the implications of Edison’s light bulb, emphasis was switched to soap production.

Procter sent his soap to chemists and chemistry laboratories in an effort to determine Ivory’s quality. He got back one report that caught his eye, one stating that the soap had few impurities, citing the figure 56/100 of one percent. In a clever twist, Procter flipped the phrasing from negative to positive and launched the company’s hallmark campaign slogan: “Ivory Soap is 99 and 44/100 percent pure.” It was a smart move in another sense: the concept of purity in a soap that floats was an advertising reinforcement that boosted sales even more. Then came even greater support of the purity idea with cardboard display posters of the “Ivory Baby.” Ivory’s ad campaigns were among the most successful in advertising history.

The most controversial aspect of Ivory’s original blue and white packaging was the Procter & Gamble logo of the bearded moon man inside a circle with stars. For some years legend maintained that the man in the logo was proof of the company’s ties to Satan. Supposedly the curlicues of the man’s beard can be seen as an array of 6’s and connecting the dots with the thirteen stars, three 6s will appear. Further, the curlicues at the top of his head resembled the horns of a ram—representative of a false prophet. The logo was taken off of Ivory soap packaging in 1985.

Naturally, the formula has changed over the years, but Ivory soap ingredients today include sodium tallowate (lye, steam and animal fat), water, sodium chloride, magnesium sulfate, sodium palm kernelate (natural salt from palm oil) and a light fragrance. Ivory has remained a strong brand since 1879, but their competition has definitely changed. According to a 2011 article in the New York Times, Ivory is now third behind Dove and Dial.


  1. Interesting that you should write about Ivory soap.....Just this week we were expecting a male visitor who was planning to spend the night. I had seen some Dial soap for men some time ago and bought it and found that it was black soap. I went looking for this again because I had forgotten where I had seen it and couldn't find it anywhere so I bought plain Dial soap. That evening all of us were discussing soap for some strange reason and I said I had looked for the black soap that said on it "Dial for Men". The visitor then said, "My very favorite soap has always been Ivory". That comment struck me as funny because I always thought of Ivory soap as being for babies.

  2. Have used our fair share of Ivory over the years. Interesting post on the history of the soap that floats. Again, love the old art work done for the product. Would gladly frame and hang any one of them.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America