In Michel Faber’s novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, the subject of some previous posts – the main male character, William Rackham, has inherited a soap ‘empire’; the product famed for its Lavender perfume and also having William’s face printed on the packaging.
What a brilliant decision of Faber’s to select that particular product on which to base his industrialist’s wealth, with William's story reeking of filth and degradation.
A contemporary Victorian model for a business such as Rackham's could very well be that of Pears – the company that won a medal at the Great Exhibition in 1851. How proud William Rackham would have been if only his soap had achieved as much!
Pears soap was named after Andrew Pears who originally hailed from Cornwall before travelling to London to set up in trade as a barber. There, in 1789 Andrew began to manufacture cosmetics which he based on glycerine and natural oils, with those ingredients believed to be purer and kinder than some others which which enhanced what was then the fashionable look of an ‘alabaster’ complexion - but which also contained harsh ingredients such as arsenic or lead.
As the years went by Pear's cosmetics business grew popular and prospered, until eventually handed down to Andrew's grandson, Francis. Francis then built a factory on the outskirts of London, in Isleworth and, later, in the nineteenth century, his son-in-law, Thomas J Barratt, helped to promote the family brand before he took over as head of the firm.
Barratt is sometimes spoken of as the father of modern advertising. He took to buying the rights to art which he then reproduced as posters, adding enormously to the popularity of the soap. If you look for Pears in Google images you will find a huge selection of prints. Why, even Mr Millais, one of the VV’s favourites, provided a picture for Pears to use: ‘Bubbles’ is still very well known today.
Another promotional method was to use the soap as an emblem of cleanliness of the civilisation spreading throughout Queen Victoria's Empire. Images such as this one below would be construed as racist today, though it is actually mild compared with some of the others used.
Ingeniously, at one point, unwanted coins were bought from France and then re-pressed with the words ‘Pears Soap’. This advertising tool was then often passed off as common currency.
Lily Langtry, famed for her ivory skin, was employed as a celebrity endorser of the brand, for which she was very handsomely paid - a fact that Punch magazine made fun of in various cartoons.
Between 1891 and 1925 Pears printed Christmas Annuals - books with stories where some pages were filled with the company's advertisements.
Also in the early twentieth century the 'Miss Pears' competition was born, with families entering their little girls in the hope that they might then become the next beautiful 'face’ of Pears.
Pears soap is an enduring brand that can still be bought in the shops today, the almost transparent amber bars being unique and widely loved – so much so that when Unilever, the company who now own the brand, attempted to alter the perfume there was an enormous public campaign to revert to the original.
I'm sure that Mr Andrew Pears would be extremely proud to know that his recipe endures today.