Every Cincinnatian knows about the Procter & Gamble Company, a corporation so entwined with Cincinnati’s self-esteem that it is often called (locally and quietly) “Procter & God.” In the shadow of P&G’s grand twin towers, everyone in the Queen City also knows something about Ivory soap (It floats!).
For a long time, however, Ivory soap was just one of many bar soaps sold by Procter & Gamble. The big seller in the early decades of the 1900s was “P and G White Naphtha Soap,” nicknamed “Blind Pig Soap” for reasons we shall examine.
“P. and G. White Naphtha Soap” was so popular that some folk singer in Newfoundland wrote a six-verse song about it. As collected in Gerald S Doyle’s 1927 book, Old-Time Songs And Poetry Of Newfoundland, the song begins:
Oh, you women folks of Newfoundland,
attend to what I say,
I mean to make it easy for you on washing day;
And when you use your washing soap,
I want you all to see,
When you’re taking off the wrapper
that it’s stamped with a “P G”
You’ll notice that our Newfoundland bard sings about “washing day,” not bathing. White Naphtha Soap was a bar soap, true, but it was not used to clean people. Procter & Gamble formulated this soap for laundry and general household cleaning. It was dynamite on woodwork, rugs, linoleum, and dishes.
White Naphtha Soap had a big market out in the rural districts. P&G advertising specified that this soap made a great lather whether your water came from the city water plant or from a well or a cistern:
“The nature of the water does not affect the work of P. and G.—The White Naphtha Soap as it does even high grade yellow soaps because this white naphtha soap contains not only naphtha and other high grade materials but its specially selected ingredients produce a big, thick, dirt-moving lather in any kind of water.”
Procter & Gamble very consciously named this a “white” soap to contrast it with the best-selling naphtha soap at the time, Fels Naptha Soap out of Philadelphia (Fels did not use all the Hs in the standard spelling of “naphtha.”). Unlike the Cincinnati product, Fels was yellowish. High-quality facial and bath soaps were white, so P&G played up that shade of coincidence.
“Naphtha” is a term of somewhat loosey-goosey definition, but it is always some sort of petroleum distillate. Procter & Gamble apparently believed that kerosene qualified as naphtha, because the company was hauled into court in the 1920s by the Federal Trade Commission on charges of false advertising. The Feds claimed there was no naphtha in the naphtha soap. P&G claimed that kerosene counted as naphtha.
Whether it contained “naphtha” or not, “P. and G. White Naphtha Soap” was one of the soaps that led to the invention of “soap operas.” While it wasn’t the first—that honor falls to Ma Perkins and its sponsor, P&G’s Oxydol detergent—White Naphtha Soap was the sponsor of The Guiding Light, the fifth-longest running program in all of broadcast history. The first episode of The Guiding Light aired on January 25, 1937 on NBC radio and the last television episode aired on September 18, 2009.
But why was this product known as “Blind Pig Soap”? Here is the Cincinnati Enquirer [3 September 1920] to explain:
“In some parts of the west Cincinnati is known chiefly as the home of the Procter & Gamble Co., soap makers, says a Cincinnatian who has just returned. ‘In Iowa the grocers say they sell more “P-G” soap than any other kind,’ he adds. ‘Iowa citizens call it “Blind Pig” soap. A stranger is mystified by this strange name for one of the products which makes Cincinnati famous. On inquiry he is informed that P-G soap is known as “Blind Pig” because it has no “I” (eye).”
Can somebody smack a rim shot for me?
It appears that Procter & Gamble stopped producing bars of White Naphtha Soap in the early 1960s.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.