99 44/100% Adorable: Girls in Vintage Soap Ads, Pt. 1 (Ivory Soap)

(Last Updated On: July 14, 2017)

There is no shortage of vintage advertisements with adorable little girls in them, but those old soap ads seem to be particularly charming. And it so happens that there are tons of them from the major soap brands like Sunlight, Packer’s, Fairy, and most prominently, Pears, easily found on the web. We’ll get to all of these in upcoming posts, but today’s post is devoted exclusively to one of the biggest soap brands of all time, Ivory.

Ivory Soap was first manufactured by the J.B. Williams Company in 1840 under the name Ivorine, but this didn’t last long. The company soon sold its rights to the soap to Procter & Gamble, who eventually changed its name to Ivory. Ivory Soap is known for two famous slogans, “It Floats” and “99 44100% Pure.”  The latter was especially popular for years.  In the ’50s and ’60s their main slogan became “That Ivory Look”, which was associated with the smooth skin of infants and considered the ideal for women.

Most of the early ads were of course illustrated, often by some of the most notable names in the business. One of those was Irving Ramsey Wiles. While he later became a successful portraitist, his early career was largely devoted to magazine and ad illustration, such as the following two variants of the same piece:

Irving Ramsey Wiles – Baby’s Ivory Bath ad (1898)(1)

Irving Ramsey Wiles – Baby’s Ivory Bath ad (1898)(2)

Another major illustrator who did illustrations for Ivory Soap was the ever-prolific Jessie Willcox Smith.  Here are three from her all done right around the turn of the twentieth century.  Note: a full-color illustration by Smith also featured in an ad for one of Ivory’s major competitors, Pears.  It’s already been posted here once, but I will likely link to it again when I make the Pears post.

Jessie Willcox Smith – Ivory Soap ad (1)(1902)

Jessie Willcox Smith – Ivory Soap ad (2)(1902)

Jessie Willcox Smith – Ivory Soap ad (3)

This next piece, although labeled as a Smith illustration when I found it, is not actually her work.  The artist’s name in the bottom left-hand corner, although difficult to make out, appears to be Albert Herter, which makes sense as Herter was definitely a contemporary of Smith and is known to have been a prolific illustrator in his own right.  And although all of the advertising info has been cropped out, you can see that the theme of the piece is the children’s bath.  The young woman here looks to have her hands full with all the kids waiting to be scrubbed clean by her.

Albert Herter – Ivory Soap ad

Yet another highly productive illustrator who did several pieces for Ivory Soap was Alice Beach Winter.  Although no dates are given for any of these, we can judge from the style, and from what we know of Winter, that these are either from the Edwardian period or slightly later.

Alice Beach Winter – Ivory Soap ad (1)

Alice Beach Winter – Ivory Soap ad (2)

Alice Beach Winter – Ivory Soap ad (3)

I do not know the artist for this next illustration, but again, it’s from the same time period.

Artist Unknown – Ivory Soap ad (1916)

Our final Golden Age illustrator is Clara Elsene Peck.  Like Jessie Willcox Smith, Peck focused primarily on the lives of women and children, which made her a natural fit for illustrating Ivory Soap ads.  I especially like this first piece, which I’m posting two different versions of.

Clara Elsene Peck – Ivory Soap ad (1)(1918)

Clara Elsene Peck – Ivory Soap ad (2)(1918)

Clara Elsene Peck – Ivory Soap ad (3)

And now we move on to the era of photography with a trio of ads featuring images by unidentified photographers.  By the ’50s it became fairly commonplace for advertisers to stop displaying the names of artists, especially photographers.

Photographer Unknown – Ivory Soap ad (1951)

Photographer Unknown – Ivory Soap ad (1959)

Photographer Unknown – Ivory Soap – You can have That Ivory Look in just 7 days

But here is one of the exceptions.  Francesco Scavullo’s work was so well-known and prestigious in the ’60s and ’70s that he has been identified as the photographer in these ads.  The idea of mothers competing with their little daughters to look youthful would later become controversial with feminists, of course.

Francesco Scavullo – Ivory Soap – Can you compete with your daughter’s “Little Girl Look”? (1)

Francesco Scavullo – Ivory Soap – Can you compete with your daughter’s “Little Girl Look”? (2)

Edit: I had intended to add this to the post originally, but it was not yet ready. So I am adding it now.  I had another commercial I wanted to post but its size exceeds the limit for upload so I will simply link to it. – Pip

Ivory Soap Commercial (1960)


8 thoughts on “99 44/100% Adorable: Girls in Vintage Soap Ads, Pt. 1 (Ivory Soap)

  1. This is reminiscent of a New York Times editorial some years ago about religious hymns being revised and the resulting controversy.

    The Times was in agreement with such revisions appearing in new hymnals, and among the examples they cited was this line in some hymn:
    “The Lord washes sinners whiter than snow.”
    They went on to say that in response to protests by black church members, some hymnals now had that phrase as “cleaner than snow”.

  2. The ad by Albert Herter (Ivory Soap) would be extremely shocking for the modern public, not only because of the nude girl but also from a racist perspective. That’s because in the background you’re seeing a lot of colored girls and it all seems they’re waiting to be washed also, thus turning them from black to white.
    And you can see that the blackness is washed off the little girl in the bottom-left corner, although that could also be just water. However, many people might see the whitewashing message in this illustration of young girls of color into ivory-white girls.
    Then again, all these soap brands seem to suggest that you’re only clean when your skin is white. They’re not just upsetting people because of the young girls but also because of the implied racism behind it all…
    Still, they’re all cute but nowadays they could be considered extremely offensive. Ivory skin? You need to be white to have one! It’s not a slogan that I would use today…

    • Yes, and in fact, in my searches I discovered that almost every soap company did some variation on this theme, which is from an old story called Washing the Blackmoor White. This is actually one of the less offensive ones I’ve seen, as it is at least subtle and symbolic. I’ll post one of the really offensive ones when I do the post on Fairy Soap. Thank you for your comment.

      • I guess I’m the only one who saw them as being in shadow, and on looking again after reading the above, note the hair and other characteristics and remain of my first conclusion.

        Not that there was no racism at the time…to say so would be foolish. To point it out in this particular instance is, to me, something else…

        • No, I thought so at first too. After all, the children are clearly Caucasian in every way except the shade of their skin. But there is definitely symbolism there, as you can see the darkness running down the legs and puddling up beneath the now clean girl in the foreground.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *