Analyzing Ideologies from the Age of Enlightenment Through A 19th Century Pears’ Soap Advertisement

When learning about the history of graphic design it has become evident to me that many advertisements from the 19th century include highly problematic underlying ideologies. I’m going to be discussing a couple of underlying ideologies that are presented through an 1886 advertisement for Pears’ Soap (Image 1). The text and illustration work together in this posters Graphic design to target an audience of racist, upper-class women.

An advertisement for Pears' Soap from 1886, marketed towards women. "Healthful skin, good complexion and soft, white, beautiful hands. Pears' Soap prevents redness, roughness, and chapping. Pears' Soap. The purest and most durable toilet soap. Hence the best and cheapest. PEARS SOAP - The great English complexion soap - is for sale throughout the United States and in all other parts of the world, and its praises are heard and echoed everywhere." Jones, Edgar R. Those Were the Good Old Days: a Happy Look at American Advertising, 1880-1930. Simon & Schuster, 1959.
Image 1. An advertisement for Pears’ Soap from 1886, marketed towards women. Reads, “Healthful skin, good complexion, and soft, white, beautiful hands. Pears’ Soap prevents redness, roughness, and chapping. Pears’ Soap. The purest and most durable toilet soap. Hence the best and cheapest. PEARS SOAP – The great English complexion soap – is for sale throughout the United States and in all other parts of the world, and its praises are heard and echoed everywhere.” Jones, Edgar R. Those Were the Good Old Days: a Happy Look at American Advertising, 1880-1930. Simon & Schuster, 1959.

When reading the text on this poster it becomes clear that Pears’ Soap was promoting popular racist ideologies from the 19th Century. The text reading “the great English complexion soap,” insinuates that the soap will give you the complexion of someone of English descent. This was to be desired because during this time scientific racism and slavery were common, and fair-skinned people had more privilege. In 1735, during the age of enlightenment, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus described Europeans very highly, as being inventive and governed by laws, while oppositely describing dark-skinned people in a very negative tone, as negligent, unpredictable and volatile people (Camarillo 56). We also see these racist ideologies promoted through the text reading “white beautiful hands,” whereupon first read it may simply seem like another way of saying clean or free of dirt since the advertisement is for soap. After analyzing literature from before the publication of this poster it becomes clear that it was directed to a fundamentally racist society (Camarillo 56). Lighter skin earned people more respect in society and often represented wealthy people from the upper-class, hence why the advertisement was worded with a racist tone.

We can tell the soap is marketed to women primarily due to the simple fact that there is a woman illustrated in the ad. She has very pale skin and is dressed in a (then) modern outfit, making it clear that it was more specifically targeted to an upper-class group of women. During the 19th century women were held to high beauty standards. It was expected of them to have a good complexion and wear modern, flattering clothes, but this could usually only be achieved by upper-class society. In this advertisement the women are shown with an impossibly tiny waist that promotes unhealthy and unrealistic body standards, similar to how most women were illustrated at the time of its publication (Image 2). It would be common for a woman to view this ad and be more likely to purchase the soap because she desired to be like the ideal woman who is depicted. This is a classic marketing technique. This advertisement is illustrated in a way similar to fashion plates, which were a promotional tool that promoted the idea of self-improvement and class passing. Her look is one that many lower and middle-class families would strive for in an attempt to appear in the same social class as their wealthier peers.

Image 2. Design for a Ball Gown by Pierre Numa, French, 1836. Depicts the tiny waist and puffy sleeves common for the period. The same cinched waist is apparent in Image 1.
Image 2. Design for a Ball Gown by Pierre Numa, French, 1836. Depicts the tiny waist and puffy sleeves common for the period. The same cinched waist is apparent in Image 1.

The following link is to a Journal published by the MoMA that includes a variety of fashion plates (Bryne 141-150). They often depict women with idealized proportions, further promoting beauty ideals similar to the ones in the Pears’ Soap advertisement and the central figure of Humphrys illustration (Image 3).

Image 2. 21 of the ladies' book improved fashion plates, F. Humphreys, 1842.
Image 3. 21 of The Ladies’ Book Improved Fashion Plates, F. Humphreys, 1842. The central figure has a tiny waist and all figures are pictures with pale, porcelain skin.

When applying a critical lens to The Pears’ Soap advertisement it’s clear that it uses effective messaging to perpetuate scientifically racist ideologies. The illustration used in this graphic design also promotes unrealistic beauty/fashion standards on female viewers who desire to take an active part in upper-class society.

Works Cited

Byrne, Janet S. “Fashion Plates.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 26, no. 3, 1967, pp. 141–150. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3258882. Accessed 22 May 2020.

“The Rise of Modern Racism(s): White Supremacy and Antisemitism in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” Racism: A Short History, by GEORGE M. FREDRICKSON and Albert M. Camarillo, REV – Revised ed., Princeton University Press, PRINCETON; OXFORD, 2002, pp. 49–96. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvc779fw.7. Accessed 22 May 2020.

F. Humphreys. 21 of the ladies’ book improved fashion plates. 1842 December. Artstor, library-artstor-org.ocadu.idm.oclc.org/asset/LOCEON_1039796139

Index of Advertisements, www.people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam312/adsindx.html.

Jones, Edgar R. Those Were the Good Old Days: a Happy Look at American Advertising, 1880-1930. Simon & Schuster, 1959.