Woodbury Soap: Classic Sexual Sell or Just Good Marketing?
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Woodbury Soap:
Classic Sexual Sell or Just Good Marketing?

Three of the most famous ad campaigns of the early twentieth century--for Woodbury Soap, for Pond’s Creams, and for Lux Toilet Soap--were developed by a single group led by Helen Lansdowne Resor at J. Walter Thompson.1 As I have told the tale in Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism, these contemporaneous campaigns show clear links through Helen Resor to the feminist movement of the early 20th century, often called the First Wave. The first campaign, Woodbury Soap, points especially to the emergent thinking among feminists about women’s sexuality, as well as what we would now call their “reproductive rights” (Figure 1). Only a few years after the Woodbury Soap advertising began, Margaret Sanger would begin her brave and controversial campaign to make contraception widely available to women.

Most commentators and historians, however, only remark that Woodbury Soap was the first ad to “use sex to sell,” as well as the first to present women as sex objects, never considering the revolutionary backdrop against which it actually ran (Figure 1). Furthermore, the Woodbury Soap campaign was not the first to sell with sex. Nor was it the first to present women as sex objects. Trade cards in the nineteenth century often pictured scantily seductive women posing on behalf of tobacco or alcohol products (Figure 2). These, however, were clearly aimed at men and most consumer products, even then, were purchased by housewives. Respectable married women were so concerned about presenting a chaste impression that no advertisers wanting to sell to them would have risked the loss of franchise that would have come from running a risqué ad in a magazine for ladies. Indeed, turn of the century magazines were quite restrictive about accepting ads that came to close to the line of decorum demanded by that audience (Edward Bok at the Ladies’ Home Journal would not even run lipstick ads because he deemed them licentious). If you peruse nineteenth-century women’s magazines today, you will see that the ads sell on the basis of social mobility, sentimentality (especially about motherhood), price, and product effectiveness, but never sex.

So, when Woodbury Soap first hinted at a woman’s desire for affection, it was a first among advertisements running in the leading women’s magazines; never before had the promise of sex been used to sell something to women. And it was probably a surprise to most observers, including the JWT team, when sales of Woodbury Soap, sluggish since the 1890s, skyrocketed. But to explain the success of these ads actually requires not only understanding of the changing sexual mores of the 1910s, but also the market milieu for soap, patent medicines, and beauty products. The real cause for Woodbury’s success was solid marketing, not secret manipulation, and when the approach failed to keep pace with the rapidly changing environment of the 1920s, sales plummeted.

Figure 1. Classic Woodbury Soap ad, from the March 1915 Ladies’ Home Journal.
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Figure 1.

Classic Woodbury Soap ad, from the March 1915 Ladies’ Home Journal.

Figure 2. Nineteenth century trade card, featuring a sexy woman selling alcohol.
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Figure 2.

Nineteenth century trade card, featuring a sexy woman selling alcohol.

Bathing in Gilded Age America

When the first Woodbury ad appeared in 1911, the United States was still undergoing the massive transformation that historians now call “the cleanliness revolution.” In the early 20th century, many Americans still held the negative attitude toward bathing that the first English settlers, especially the Puritans, had brought. The first colonists’ belief that washing the body was an indulgent act of sensuality—and thus immoral—had been part of Christian ideology since its earliest days. Both Romans and Hebrews had emphasized bathing and practiced elaborate, though very different, rituals for washing. The new Christians distinguished themselves from the more entrenched subcultures by taking a stance against bathing altogether. The attitude set them apart from most cultures in world history.

The human pattern is to bathe, often in groups, and to believe that the ritual benefits the soul as much as the body. Bathing does not always include either soap or water, but is often done with oils or by scraping the skin. Indeed...