• Exploring American History

Procter & Gamble used Ivory to float a big business

During the 1800s, the heartbeat of the United States was centered in Cincinnati, Ohio. This was because American commerce was conducted chiefly via steamship through a system of lakes, rivers and canals. Situated on the Ohio River, which connects to the mighty Mississippi that opens into the port of New Orleans, Cincinnati was and is a natural commerce hub. It was during this time the city gained a unique nickname - “Porkopolis”.

In the days prior to refrigeration, Americans ate mostly pork, due to the fact a butcher’s greatest concern business-wise was spoilage. Eating beef did not make as much sense due to the fact a large portion of the meat from a 1,500 pound freshly-killed animal stood an excellent chance of going bad before the carcass could be delivered to the butchers, then sold and consumed by the customers.

Pigs were a better choice because they were smaller, fatty and the meat could be cured with salt without losing its flavor. Pork by-products also created a booming business for boot makers, tanners, and those who rendered down the fat for candles and soap.

In the 1870s, two individuals immigrated to America and made their way to Porkopolis in the midst of a major economic downturn. William Procter

journeyed to the United States to establish a candle-making business after the one he owned in England was destroyed by fire. At this same time, Ireland was in the midst of the tragic potato famine, forcing soapmaker James Gamble off the Emerald Isle and on his way across the Atlantic as well.

Eventually, both men gravitated to Cincinnati and there found the loves of their lives. Destiny definitely had its hand in the matter as their sweethearts just happened to be sisters, Elizabeth and Olivia Norris. Following the weddings, and at the urging of their father-in-law, Alexander Norris, the two men became business partners and began a soap-and-candle manufacturing company which they named - what else - Procter & Gamble.

It was around this time in American history Caroline Ingalls would take Mary, Laura and Carrie to Olson’s Mercantile to shop. When the grocery list Caroline handed him contained the word ‘soap,’ Mr. Olson would cut a custom-sized portion from a large wheel. Procter & Gamble now came up with an ingenious new idea – individually wrapped bars of soap. This would allow Caroline and other shoppers to collect a bar from the shelf and drop it in her basket, saving Mr. Olson the trouble of having to cut off a piece just so-so in size, in addition to the counter space the large wheel required.

Due to the fact soap was made with animal fat, producing individually wrapped pieces would be costly, so a new method of soap production needed to be developed; one which was more economical. They finally settled on a combination of coconut and palm oils to create their artifact. A unique characteristic of the product was the soap floated. That was handy because dishes and clothes were washed in a basin full of suds and the soap would normally get lost in the process.

Now that the product was ready for sale, the partners needed to come up with a name for their new creation. For this, William turned to the Bible for inspiration. He found it in Psalm 45:8 – All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad (KJV). With that, the word ‘Ivory’ quickly became Proctor and Gamble’s first registered trademark and before long, a household word.

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After the discovery of Ivory soap, the enterprising pair was off and rolling on a new product – cottonseed oil. A waste product of cotton farming, the dynamic duo felt this would offer a cheap supply of fat for soap making. In its natural form, cottonseed oil has a cloudy red color and a bitter taste which comes from “gossypol”, a natural phytochemical now used in China as a method of male birth control. Gossypol has been proven to be toxic to most animals due to the fact it creates a dangerous spike in the body’s potassium levels, resulting in paralysis and organ damage.

Now it was time to convince the cooks of America to change their ways. P&G set out to encourage them to use Crisco in their cookies instead of butter and instead of lard to fry their chicken. The J. Walter Thompson Agency was hired to help with the convincing. The first full-service advertising agency in America, Thompson offered P&G a staff of professional writers and artists. Samples of Crisco went out to stores and every homemaker who bought a can received a free cookbook, full of recipes using the product. Everything from tomato sandwiches to baked salmon and asparagus soup contained one or two tablespoons of Crisco in the recipe. Since health claims made by advertisers were not regulated at that time, the agency’s copywriters had a field day coming up with all sorts of descriptive phrases to market this new wonder product of the early 1900s.

As the old saying goes though, “all which glimmers is not necessarily gold.” By the 1990s, the health risks people faced by using such products as hydrogenated vegetable shortening, margarine and other processed trans fats were being discovered. ‘Trans fat is defined as “an unhealthy substance, also known as trans fatty acid, made through the chemical process of hydrogenation of oils.” The risk of heart disease from consuming such products on a regular basis increases by 23%. On the other hand, science has been unable to prove the same thing holds true for people who consume nature fats, such as butter and lard. Simple pleasures truly are the best.

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"What was garbage in 1860 was fertilizer in 1870, cattle feed in 1880, and table food and many things else in 1890." Popular Science Magazine

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