Personal Soap

1887 Pears Soap AdPersonal cleanliness was one of the most significant Japanese virtues for the West, and exploited by makers of soap, perfumes, and so on. At a time when a weekly bath was considered adequate for most Americans (and the British Pears' Soap ads promoted daily washing of the face as something desirable but not universal, in a series of ads asking "Have you used Pears Soap today?"), the Japanese were reputed to bathe daily. Accounts of this practice included such novelties as communal bathing, bathing outdoors with no attempt at screening the body from the sight of passersby, bathing in boiling hot water, and bathing several times a day. This could be seen as disgusting, as in an 1863 article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine ("Pictures of the Japanese," Nov. 1863, anonymous but based on Rutherford Alcock's book The Capital of the Tycoon), where a discussion of prostitution (the "Social Evil") is followed by this comment:

The bath is also a great public institution in Japan. Men and women bathe together in a manner which shocks all our ideas of decency. As far as their persons are concerned the Japanese are certainly a very cleanly people. But this does not hold good of their garments. These are worn day and night, and rarely changed. This, together with the habit of promiscous bathing, renders cutaneous diseases extremely prevalent....
A sincere horror at the idea of public or mixed-sex bathing was probably a common reaction--a sense that promiscuous bathing was intrinsically lewd and must inevitably involve promiscuous sex. Other, more enlightened observers decided however that the nudity involved might after all be innocent, since even young women seemed to be no more aware of indecency than would a child. The Westerner's horror of immodesty could  be the basis of comedy in travelers' tales, as in this passage about a young Yorkshireman working in the British legation in Tokyo, from Mrs. Hugh Fraser's story "In Tokyo" (in The Custom of the Country, 2nd ed., 1899, pp. 31-32):
Some things shocked his untried prudery beyond words. It would be difficult to describe his feelings when, as he was walking, tired and dusty, through a hill village, an old woman, paddling in her bath in sight of all beholders, called out to stop him as he passed.
     "What does she want?" he asked of his guide, glancing with a visible shudder at the aged bit of humanity (brown as a last year's oak leaf, and innocent of clothes as a fish in a tank) which stretched an arm to him from a steaming tub.
     "She very kind woman," the guide explained, "she say, young gentleman tired, dirty, bath plenty big for two people; please get in!"....
     Yet the old woman had offered him the one kindness of which he stood in need, according to her lights.
    In point of fact, bathing in Japan seems to have involved a preliminary cleansing with  exfoliant material and scoops of cold water from a bucket (one of the earliest American visitors to Japan remarks that "sand does duty for soap" in Japan; see Edward Yorke McCauley, With Perry in Japan, ed. Allan B. Cole, Princeton University Press, 1942, p. 105, entry for April 21 1854). Only when clean did one enter the tub of very hot water, whose primary purpose was to relax a tired body. Given the extraordinary physical endurance involved in an everyday life with almost no mechanical or animal means of transporting anything--just people--the luxury of a daily bath must have been an important one for all classes.
     In the above quotations we see, though, a kind of startlement that the Japanese, heathen as they are, should in this practice be possibly superior--morally superior, if "cleanliness is next to godliness" (as an 1883 Pears Soap ad quoted Henry Ward Beecher as saying)--to Western Christians. It seems necessary to make a joke or find an un-godly aspect about this embarrassing possible superiority. Advertisers could however exploit this by making it clear that Americans needed to "catch up," which may be the implication of the 1887 Pears Soap ad showing a Japanese mother bathing her child (but note that the issue of Japanese cleanliness is not addressed in the copy).  In the hands of children's writers, though, the Japanese penchant for cleanliness was always a positive feature. Thus in the 1927 book, After the Rain, which describes the bathing habits of children all over the world, the Japanese chapter is one of the fullest. It includes morning bathing, ritual washing of hands, and of course the evening bath (see color picture).
     At any rate, in the West the purchase of a bar of soap uniquely for personal cleansing was a luxury. All-purpose soaps, often home-made, were more common; however, by the mid-19th century manufacturers like Pears and Lever in England, and Proctor & Gamble and Kirk's  in the U.S., were marketing soaps to be used only on the human skin, promising gentleness, softness, whiteness, and other desirable qualities. Japanese themes helped market these soaps in the late 19th century: cleanliness, sweet smells, happy babies and children, and feminine sexiness were all part of the Japanese mystique that was evoked in various ads.
Jap Rose Soap
Kirk's Jap Rose soap was apparently one of the premier American brands of personal soap (as opposed to laundry or all-purpose soaps). It was a real luxury--a clear glycerine soap that lathered well (similar to Pears in England), distinct from their "White Russian" and "Castille" soaps. I am not sure when the name was first used--perhaps not until abut 1900. Early ads showed photographs of Japanese women strolling under the cherry blossoms, but later ones moved from the authentic to the "artistic." Illustrations featured lovely Japanese women with flowing hair --and often Western features and fantasy-oriental dress, more Chinese than Japanese--or the Jap Rose Kids (below), or both. The emphasis in the advertsising was on overall cleanliness, freshness, and smelling nice. In the 1920s ads for Jap Rose moved away from the Japanese motifs, for example an ad featuring Leonardo da Vinci and others showing happy wives with soft skin or lovely young girls identified as Canadian, Scots, etc. I don't know when the name Jap Rose was dropped.
Other soap brands (for example, Fiske's Japanese soap) also exploited the idea of a Japanese culture of personal hygiene, and Pears Soap (a British brand) and Hand Sapolio used Japanese characters or motifs to clarify that they, too, were worthy of being used by the Japanese.
Kirk's Jap Rose Soap 28" x 38" original painting of the Kids bathing the doll, owned by and shown by permission of J. K. Curry. Kirk's Jap Rose Soap 

Used for various items, including an ad in the Saturday Evening Post  4/11/1914 (click on the picture here to see the ad)  and a round colored Tip Tray.

The Kids appear in many Jap Rose ads, sometimes with a mother. Horsman was also licensed to produce a pair of dolls in the 1910s. To see a picture of the girl doll, see the online Horsman Gallery.

Detail from a Jap Rose Soap ad in the Pictorial Review, March 1919 
(click for whole image). 
In this lovely picture parasol, doll, and lantern are all included, along with wisteria, butterflies, and kimono, to evoke the traditional image of the Japanese. Right after World War I, this was probably a pleasing image of a nation which was an ally but was seen by some as a potential threat.
Jap Rose Advertisement (newspaper), 1906, US 
Signed MM. 
Jap Rose Soap blotter

Pears' Soap

A charming history of Pears' soap is online. Here I am interested primarily in the racism involved in certain ad themes. A possible conclusion of a study of these advertisements (from about 1885-1910) is that the Japanese qualified as "the other white race."

     While Pears' Soap had many ad campaigns, two of the brand's promises in the 1890s through the 1920s were that the use of Pears would "civilize" and "whiten" a person. For example, an 1887 ad says that Pears "produces soft, white, and beautiful hands"; another 1887 ad shows a black, half-naked woman fanning a white woman who lies on a sort of classical couch, her hair flowing and her garment clinging to her curves, with a couple of cupids holding a bar of Pears' above and the admonition to use Pears' "For the complexion" ; and a third ad from the same period shows a South Asian man standing on a ladder with a bar of Pears' and scrub-brush, beside an elephant, with the caption "The Real Secret of the White Elephant." Exactly what Pears' is supposed to do for the complexion of the African maid or the Indian gentleman is not clear, but it is made quite clear in several "humorous" ads from the 1890s: a little white girl on an outing comments of a passing black girl: "She needs to use Pears"; a little white boy gives a little black boy a tub bath, with the result that the latter is white from the neck down, or a black boy washing his hands in a bucket under the eye of a little white girl finds that his hands turn white, or a couple of black children comment, as a mother struggles to give her baby a tub bath, "She's gwine to turn that nigger white!";  a "native" minister  wins back his wandering congregation by washing with Pears, which turns his skin white. Presumably all these ads about whitening dark skin are meant to be taken as a joke, though they assume what a "serious" 1887  ad makes explicit, quoting Tennyson's poem Locksley Hall: "Ev'n the black Australian dying  hopes he shall return a white." Thanks to Jim Twitchell,  an expert on advertising (author of Lead Us Into Temptation) for guidance on the Pears' question.
     Related to whiteness of skin was the quite serious idea of "the white man" as the only kind of civilized human, striving however to bring civilization to the darker races.  A famous ad with this theme shows Admiral Dewey using Pears' Soap in the Philippines, and is entitled Lightening the White Man's Burden (1899). Another such ad drawing on the Pacific sphere of influence shows Christian missionaries in China;  a news correspondent in China is quoted as saying that "Pears soap... is the only soap to be found in a white man's house, anywhere in the far East[.] If anything can civilize and Christianize China, Pears soap and the missionaries will do it!" Instead of showing the Chinese using the soap, the ad tells us that the missionaries (shown in Chinese clothing) use it. It's not clear whether Pears' contribution to the missionary effort is to be washing the Chinese or washing China's dust off the missionaries.
     However, Japan seems to be exempt from the Pears idea that people of non-European descent  need English or American soap to civilize them. Pears,was clearly interested in Japanese images even in 1887 (see the ad at the top of this page, which imitates a Japanese woodcut). In a 1904 advertisement showing "The World's Fair," i.e., beautiful women from around the world, among all the Western women we see a Japanese girl in kimono; the others are identifiable as English, American, French, Spanish, and Italian.  Pears  also used in 1900 a picture of the globe of the earth with a little Japanese and an American girl reaching over to hand off bars of Pears Soap to each other (the Japanese girl is leaning across Russia, which is striking given the growing hostility between these two countries).

Letters from Yokohama and New York Ad, Munsey's Magazine, 1900

The contrast here is between a sophisticated, well-travelled woman who has used Pears for many years, and a naive young New Yorker who has just discovered it. Since the Japanese letter is from Yokohama, we can assume that its author is an American or European woman, part of the international diplomatic and commercial  community settled in that city (Yokohama's "Bluff" was the main community for foreigners in Japan). In other words, she is wealthy, socially adept, and well-educated. In her circles, "Pears' is in no need of further advertising," while for the poor young girl in New York, struggling all alone without friends to advise her, advertising turns out to be essential to learning about which soap to use. 

The illustrations, however, do  not contrast the untidy blonde girl in her undies with  a sophisticated European or American woman. Rather, the Yokohama woman is a lovely Japanese lady with a bunch of chrysanthemums, walking down a Japanese street. The visual idea, then, is that in Japan, land of flowers and cleanliness, Pears' Soap is well established. 

Happy Jappy Ad, Harper's Monthly, 1906

A very complex piece of popular culture. his "ethnic" image would have trumped the more staid pictures of Japanese women used by Jap Rose soap at the time. The image of the woman in a tub is authentic (except for the soap bar--the Japanese rinsed off soap before getting in the tub), similar to images in travel books. It is obviously meant to titilate by the woman's "oriental" lack of modesty--as in the anecdotes quoted above, she seems quite ready to invite the viewer to join her in the tub. Pears in fact sometimes exploited sexual themes or innuendo ("He won't be happy till he gets it"--a bar of soap or a kiss) and a famous early ad shows Lillian Russell naked in a bubble bath.

The phrase "Happy Jappy" echoes songs from the popular 1896 musical, The Geisha: "Happy Japan"  and "The Dear Little Jappy-Jap-Jappy." 

Despite the racist implications, the advertising copy  implies  that Japanese women have white hands, a great complexion, and civilization, on a par with American women--that the use of Pears Soap helps maintain  these qualities. 

 More Soap ads featuring Japanese dolls

Ivory Soap ad

1898, US

Alice Stephen Barber

Lovely image by a distinguished artist of the nursery with baby and Japanese doll; an older girl holds a fancy blonde dolly.
We see here the motif of a Japanese doll as appropriate for a very young child, while the older girl gets a bisque doll with a wig.
This is actually a copy of the advertisement obtained by mail order from the company, rather than clipped from a magazine.

Hand Sapolio Soap ad

1908, US 

signed AMU 

The text shows an awareness of the better literary conventions for representing Japanese speech--the high-toned imperative about the "honorable bath" and the correct use of the a girl's name with the honorific -San. This formality and correctness contrasts with the baby's own mispronunciations and uncertainty. 


Yet another Pears' Soap advertisement, from 1906. The giant bar of transparent soap seems to have been a favorite device of artists for both Jap Rose and Pears'.

Here the mother is wearing a sexy kimono and the tiny girl about to be bathed is holding a little Japanese doll, quite recognizable from the "bald spot."