When Laundry Detergent Was Edible

A pile of eight emerald green laundry detergent Tide Pods against a white background.

A century before teenagers began eating Tide Pods, the now-infamous packets of laundry detergent, domestic workers were adding actual edible ingredients to tubs of wash water, such as birch bark, sassafras, eucalyptus, and even cinnamon oil. The scented additions were important because laundry soap itself was made from edible ingredients: animal fat and vegetable oils that could turn rancid if reacted with an insufficient quantity of lye. So housekeeping guides from the early 20th century offered myriad suggestions. Cinnamon oil or camphor added “a small quantity of scent” to less-than-sweet-smelling homemade laundry soap. Delicate fabrics like lace and ribbons could be safely laundered in wash water made from “equal parts of soap and honey and gin water.”

A illustration of a white blonde child in fancy clothes holding a bar of soap labeled ""Fairy" addressing a barefoot black child in humble clothes. The caption reads "Why doesn't your mamma wash you with Fairy Soap? / Made only by the N. K. Fairbank Company, / Chicago, St. Louis, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh. Baltimore

Fairy Soap tradecard. Image from the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Domestic workers and homemakers also used scent to respond to late 19th-century anxieties about urban density, filth, and thinly veiled racial fears about “other” bodies that might smell of unfamiliar odors. Advertisements for Mrs. Potts’ irons and Monkey Brand soap made most obvious the racial fears motivating a growing interest in cleanliness.

But an anti-urban sentiment pervaded, too. Factory inspector Lucy Deane, after surveying an urban laundry in 1902, wrote “the heavy odour of an ill-ventilated laundry or wash-house is one of the worst.” Inside the industrial laundry, fetid air “seems to cling to one’s lips till one tastes it.” Contrast Deane’s distaste with that sentiment voiced by Viola Smith, a Kentucky homemaker who grew up in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in the 1920s: “[W]e’d get sassafras bark, scrape it and put it in [the wash water]…And, geez, your clothes would just smell, they were clean, they really were.”1 Urban anxieties like Deane’s, and rural praise like Smith’s, reinforced a particularly powerful conflation of biota and cleanliness.

Domestic workers, of course, were not alone in their sensorially imaginative efforts. Beginning in the late 19th century, executives at soapmaking companies like Procter & Gamble, the Larkin Company, and Lever Brothers began adding expensive essential oils to mass-produced luxury bars for faces and hands. The practice of scenting toilet soap was not new, but the scale of the global trade making it possible was. Soapmakers snapped up geranium imported from Madagascar, ylang ylang from Southeast Asia, and rose oil from France.

Commercial laundry soap, in contrast to its luxurious counterparts, was an unapologetically cheap product, not meriting the addition of essential oils. Hands and faces might smell of jasmine or rose or vetiver; linens would not.

An circular paper-wrapped olive-green package with a label that reads "Lettuce toilet soap / Colgate & Co. / Perfumers / New York"

Colgate & Company’s lettuce soap, c.1870s-1890s. Photo from the collections of the National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution.

Scent as a Brand-Building Strategy

All this would change in the 1930s, when the rise of synthetic scents, as cheap alternatives to essential oils, collided with corporate competition for raw ingredients and loyal customers. Economic downturn, paradoxically, made scenting cheap laundry soap a justifiable business decision. The scenting of wash water had been an in-home practice for the better part of a quarter-century. But in the 1930s, it became a commercial soapmaking norm as well.

Competition arrived in its obvious sense as contest for consumer dollars. Though small factories had been the drivers of the 1880s commercialization of soapmaking from its roots in the home, by 1930 the industry had consolidated. Only three firms accounted for a staggering 80 percent of American soap sales: Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Co., and Lever Brothers.2

Executives were eager to distinguish their products from those of their competitors, particularly in a moment of economic depression, and employed every imaginable strategy: massive print advertising campaigns, jingle-writing contests, radio soap operas, investing in research, hiring “brand men” to promote specific product names, and using scent as a form of brand creation.

A print ad that reads "Du Point presents a new synthetic aromatics 'Alpine Violet'" against the image of a an alpine meadow with snow-capped mountains in the background.

“Alpine Violet” advertisement. Photograph by Spring Greeney from Du Pont Aromatics, Soap, Vol. 13 no. 3 (March 1937): 4.

The specific cocktails used to scent early-1930s Lux flakes or Duz soap powder were proprietary, but contemporaneous events reveal the sensory sea change taking place that otherwise falls outside our historical view. At Du Pont Chemical Company, executives launched an Aromatics and Synthetic Perfumes division that was selling nationally by the 1930s. Synthetic ionone (odor of violets) and vanillin (odor of vanilla) were hailed by industry as “[t]wo recent synthetic perfumes of great importance on the market.” At Firmenich & Co., a Swiss-based chemical firm, executives reminded interested soapmakers “odor is perhaps the most important factor in the successful merchandising of toilet soaps.” Chemists at the “big three” soap manufacturers seemed to agree.

Scenting Laundry Soap to Solve a Stinky Problem

Competition for customers was not the only motivator of adding scent to laundry soap. Messy nature guided production decisions, too. Chemists had noted since the late 1880s that certain types of fat carried their odor through to the finished product, coconut oil chief among them. But such an issue had remained a minor problem until the 1911 patenting of a new hydrogenation process, which transformed fats Americans weren’t eating into popular new foods like margarine. As more grades of fat made their way to the commercial bakery and grocery store, soap factories began buying low-grade varieties like cottonseed and even fish oil to shore up production shortages. Scent could mask the unpleasant odor of these stock fats.

A horizontal diagram tree with sections of "kinds of soap" (toilet soap and laundry soap), the type of fat used, akalis, and use.

Outline of soap ingredients. Diagram from Lydia Ray Balderston, Laundering: Home—Institution (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1923), 97. Courtesy of the HEARTH collection, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University.

So the addition of scent to commercial laundry soaps did three pieces of work for anxious soapmaking companies in the 1930s. It helped build brand integrity in a decade marked by industry competition borne of consolidation. It covered unpleasant odors clinging to low-grade fat being made into laundry soap. And it tapped into an existing consumer expectation, dating back to the early 20th century, that clean linens smell of something pleasant. Chemists at Procter & Gamble would begin to overcome the problem of fat shortages as early as 1933, with the roll-out of the nation’s first petrochemical-based detergent, Dreft, for use on delicates.

That clean clothes should be fragrant, soft, brightly colored, and easily made clean…is a 20th-century invention.

Tide, an all-purpose detergent that was also made of petrochemicals instead of fat, soon followed. Introduced by Procter & Gamble nationally in 1945, Tide advertized itself as a “washday miracle” enabling “the world’s CLEANEST wash.” But what advertisements did not state, in part because advertising agents had already forgotten it was a commercial innovation only a decade earlier, was that the world’s cleanest wash had a smell.

By the late 1940s, laundry soap brands were household names. “You had Tide or Fab or Lifebuoy,” explained Consuela Tafolla, naming three of the top-selling detergents of her day as she recalled doing laundry in mid-century Milwaukee.3 Added Mary Robinson, a textile worker from Wetumpka, Alabama, “Everybody used that Oxygel soap.”4

Writing Domestic Workers Back into History

Domestic workers in the early 20th century popularized practices like scenting wash water. Soapmaking companies may have monetized that practice, but it was homemakers and paid washerwomen who taught their beneficiaries—their families, their customers—to expect that clean clothes might smell of birch bark or cinnamon rather than the sharp odor of lye, starch, and the hot iron. This sensory expectation didn’t singularly explain the commercial success of Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive-Peet, and Lever Brothers in the face of 1930s economic depression, but it proved more crucial to business strategy than executives in the 1920s would have ever predicted. Tide Pods as today’s “forbidden fruit” ironically benefit from the deliberate erasure both of the edible ingredients that were in fact once used to clean laundry, and the workers whose labors, responding to urban and racial anxieties, had once made scent a desirable feature masking the fats and oils in laundry soap itself.

This history matters in part because it makes visible the labor that has always been domestic work, whether or not its doers have been paid for that work. It also matters because it points to a larger story that we miss when we assume that corporate executives and advertising agents were the ones to build mass markets in the early 20th-century United States. As domestic workers remind us, sensory and ecological transformations accompanied the political and economic shifts created by 20th-century mass production. That clean clothes should be fragrant, soft, brightly colored, and easily made clean—rather than odorless, starched stiff, bleached white, and a daylong labor—is a 20th-century invention. Corporate executives and female domestic workers had equal roles in creating this transformation, though it remained male figures who profited from such changes.

A woman's legs sticking out of a laundromat dryer.

Photo from Max Pixel.

For all of the sensory transformations engendered by technologies like laundry soaps (not to mention synthetic dyes, washing machines, and “wash-n-wear” fabrics), a century of innovation has not succeeded at overcoming the systemic devaluation of domestic work. Nor has it refuted cultural expectation that certain work—cooking, cleaning, rearing children—is feminine. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2014 American Time Use Survey showed that women still do a disproportionate amount of housework, a differential amplified if we take into account work categories like emotional labor that are currently uncounted in current federal surveys.

So what role for history? Why pay attention to sensory change and its makers? Attending to those workers—domestic and otherwise—forces us to recognize the economic importance of their work. Washing laundry, with all its burdens and pleasures, has always been a place where we remake the natural world. Let us not lose track of the full range of actors whose work has transformed the household nature we see, feel—and smell.

Featured image: Laundry detergent capsules. Photo from Pixelbay.

Spring Greeney is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a Visiting Dissertation Fellow at the Science History Institute. An environmental historian of the 20th-century Unites States, her dissertation traces the role of chemists, domestic workers, and non-human actors in reimagining domestic work, and in managing messy nature in the ostensibly domesticated household. Her most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “Six Quick Lessons in How to Read a Landscape(January 2017). Twitter. Contact.

  1. Viola Smith, interview with Fran Leeper Buss, June 4, 1979, Tape 58B, transcript, Box 5, Work and Family: Low-Income and Minority Women Talk about Their Lives, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI. 

  2. “Procter & Gamble,” Fortune, December 1931, 92–96, 98. See also Paul A. Laux, Emmett H. Miller, and John J. Siegfried, “Soap and Detergent,” in David O. Whitten, and Bessie E. Whitten, eds. Extractives, Manufacturing, And Services in Manufacturing: A Historiographical and Bibliographical Guide, Handbook of American Business History, Vol. 1 (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997), 217-234. 

  3. Consuela Tafolla, interview with Fran Leeper Buss, April 30, 1980, Interview Tape 121B, transcript, Box 5, Work and Family: Low-Income and Minority Women Talk about Their Lives, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI. 

  4. Mary Robinson & Mildred McEwen, interview with Fran Leeper Buss, May 23,1980, Tape 36B, transcript, Box 5, Work and Family: Low-Income and Minority Women Talk about Their Lives, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI. 

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