In Michel Faber’s novel The Crimson Petal and the White, the subject of some previous posts – the male character of William Rackham has inherited a soap ‘empire’ The product he sells is famed for its lavender perfume, and also because it has his face printed on the packaging.
What an ingenuous decision it was for Faber to select the industry of soap on which to base his industrialist’s wealth, because his novel tells a story reeking of filth and degradation: the selling not just of soap, but also of women's bodies.
A contemporary Victorian model for a business such as Rackham's could very well have been that of Pears.
The company which won a medal at the Great Exhibition in 1851 was named after Andrew Pears. He originally hailed from Cornwall before travelling to London to set up in trade as a barber. But in 1789 he also began to manufacture cosmetics based on glycerine and natural oils. He used ingredients purer and kinder than many others sold to enhance 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 prospered and was eventually handed down to Andrew's grandson, Francis. Francis built a factory in Isleworth, on the outskirts of London. His son-in-law, Thomas J Barratt then helped to promote the family brand even more when he headed up the firm.
Barratt is sometimes spoken of as the father of modern advertising after he took to buying the rights to artworks which were then reproduced as posters. If you look for Pears Soap in Google images you will find a huge selection of prints. Why, even Mr Millais, one of the VV’s favourites, provided his painting of ‘Bubbles’ which is still well-known today.
Another publicity tool was to use the soap as an emblem of cleanliness abroad in the expanding British Empire. Images such as the one below would be rightly be construed as being racist today, though it is actually quite mild compared with some of the posters used.
Another rather ingenious method of marketing the product was to buy up unwanted coins from France and then re-press the metal with the words of ‘Pears Soap’. Many of theses coins were often passed off as common currency.
Celebrity endorsement was also brought into play when Lily Langtry, famed for her ivory skin, also advertised the brand. For this she was handsomely paid - a fact noted by Punch magazine in various cartoons.
Between 1891 and 1925 Pears printed Christmas Annuals in which many pages were filled with the company's advertisements.
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 pretty 'face’ of Pears.
Pears soap is still available to buy. The almost transparent amber bars are unique and widely loved; so much so that when Unilever, the company that now owns the brand, attempted to alter the perfume there was an enormous public outcry for it to return to the original. How proud Andrew Pears would be to know that his original recipe still endures to this very day.