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  • Sense, Sensibility, and SoapAn Unexpected Case Study in Digital Resources for Book History
  • Janine Barchas (bio)

Unrecorded in even David Gilson’s A Bibliography of Jane Austen is the little-known fact that soap manufacturer Lever Brothers published editions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice during the 1890s as part of a unique marketing campaign for Sunlight soap.1 The first English company to combine massive product giveaways with large-scale advertising, Lever Brothers offered a range of prizes in “Sunlight Soap Monthly Competitions” to “young folks” (contestants could not be older than seventeen) who sent in the largest number of soap wrappers. The Sunlight advertising blitz, targeted to working- and lower-middle-class consumers, proved such a boon to sales that Lever Brothers ran the competition for a full seven years, annually escalating the giveaways. Prizes included cash, bicycles, silver key-chains, gold watches, and—for the largest number of winners—cloth-bound books. For this purpose, Lever Brothers published and distributed its own selection of fiction titles by “Popular Authors” and “Standard Authors,” including cloth-bound editions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. By 1897, the year the competition closed, Lever Brothers had awarded well over a million volumes.

Lever’s “Sunlight Library” editions were published at a time when advertisements for soap, by corporate giants such as Lever Brothers and Pears Ltd., provided “an immense stimulus to popular literature,” underwriting the national thirst for fiction to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds per year.2 In 1901 the Review of Reviews reported that Pears alone had recently spent £126,000 on advertising in a single year, surmising that much “of this a goodly sum must have found its way into the pockets of publishers.”3 Business historians calculate that Lever spent the vast sum of £2 million on advertising between 1885 and 1905, “far more than any of his competitors.”4 Lever and Pears also owned their own publishing outlets, generating annuals, miscellanies, and bits of commissioned fiction. Ad copy employed literary allusions, as in a common newspaper advert in 1886 that [End Page 185] praised the “BEAUTIFUL COMPLEXION” achieved with Pears’ Soap with snippets from Shakespeare and Pope: “Thou hast the sweetest face I ever looked on” and “If to her share some female errors fall, Look on her face and you’ll forget them all.” The soap industry’s influence on literary taste and print culture innovations may be more significant than literary scholars have yet acknowledged.

I discovered the above in a search spurred by a worn, stray copy of the Lever edition of Sense and Sensibility (Figure 1). The book is a revealing piece of social history and, considering its original production values, a remarkable survivor. While giveaways may not equate, bibliographically speaking, with ephemera, the Lever edition—printed on cheap paper and bound in decorated cloth—was not printed to last. The original inking was uneven and sloppy, with haphazard words retaining an accidental bold look while other sections of text appear gaunt and pale. The margins are mismatched, with some pages barely spared loss of text by the binder’s cuts. Modestly attractive on the outside, the book is bound in boards covered in no-nonsense ungrained red cloth. The binding is split-fountain stamped with a floral design, boasting “Lever Bros. Ltd” in gilt at the bottom of the spine (Figure 2). The title Sense and Sensibility is stamped neatly on the decorated front cover, while Jane Austen’s name appears only on the book’s title page. But for the binding’s floral cover, there are no extras or internal illustrations, although there is a modest Arts and Crafts aesthetic to the small initial letters and typical head- and tailpieces that mark each chapter. While the central text remains serviceable, if brittle, for reading, the original mix of papers must have been of very low quality, causing the edges of the well-worn book to stripe as different gatherings browned at different rates over time. The novel’s text, which might have been set from any of the Bentley-edition derivatives circulating at the time, is not accompanied by any paratext—so...


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