At left is one of a series of ads the J. Walter Thompson agency created for Lifebuoy soap in the 1920s. (For a larger version, click on the image.) Crowds are always dangerous, the copy proclaimed, because there were "almost certainly" carriers of various dread diseases in every crowd. "How many 'Typhoid Marys' are there in this crowd?" the copy asked. Carriers, the ad explained, were perfectly healthy people who had had mild cases of some disease and who "carried" millions of the germs even though they themselves were immune. The most likely "carrier," the ad suggested by placing him in the center foreground, is the one working-class figure in the crowd. Everyone else is visibly clean. But his hat is soiled; he is not cleanshaven.
"Typhoid Mary" was the nickname of an Irish cook, Mary Mallon, who had infected several families who employed her. She was placed in quarantine for three years but released in 1910 on her promise not to seek employment as a cook. Mallon failed to keep her promise. Instead she found a job at a maternity hospital as a cook. There she infected another twenty-five people, two of whom died. Assuming various names, but always working as a cook, Mallon was arrested again in 1919. At the time of the ad, she was once again in quarantine where she would remain until her death in 1938. (Click here to read an account of her career as a "carrier" in The Military Surgeon by the doctor who first uncovered her role in the typhoid outbreaks.)
Contagious disease held special terrors for people in the early 1920s. The great influenza pandemic of 1918-19 claimed over 21 million lives, more than twice as many as died in the "Great War." More than 450,000 died in the United States. 115,000 Americans had died in combat. Yet, one of the public health lessons of the influenza outbreak was that washing with soap provided no protection whatsoever. It was a lesson the J. Walter Thompson agency either never learned or deliberately ignored. Instead it played upon common fears and then promised an illusory protection. What was true of influenza also held for typhoid fever. "Typhoid Mary" had infected so many because she did not wash properly. But those she infected could not have protected themselves by washing. The germs were in their food.
In another ad, the danger arises from tainted money. "A soiled dollar bill under a microscope is an ugly sight" read the copy. Bank cashiers were especially at risk, but so was everyone who handled money. The risk arose because anyone might have touched the money. The "germ-laden hands" who contaminated the dollar bill in the ad belonged to an immigrant peddlar, clearly Jewish, and his immigrant customer. Their immigrant status is conveyed by her shawl, his beard, and the outdoor setting. Immigrants stereotypically pushed carts through crowded neighborhoods.
Once again, the public health risk is entirely imaginary. Paper is not a breeding ground for germs. And, once again, the protection Lifebuoy promises is equally fictitious. No soap could "keep" hands "antiseptically pure." Nonetheless the ad warned those who frequently handled money to always wash with Lifebuoy before touching their wives or children.
In "There is no Substitute for Health," the ad campaign again turned to the spectre of the "carrier." "Doctors have proved that practically all contagions," the ad misleadingly proclaimed, were spread by these healthy yet menacing people. "Who last touched" the trolley car strap the clean-cut young family man in the straw hat is grasping? Later, playing ball with his children, he might in turn infect them. Or they might infect him. "Children will play with stray animals" who presumably also may carry disease. So it falls to "Mother" in her role as "Health Doctor" to protect her family by making sure that they all wash with Lifebuoy.
In the "Mothers know it safeguards health and beauty" ad there is no visible human source of contagion, no dirty workingman, no immigrants. Instead there is a healthy "Lifebuoy family." "Mother is the Health Doctor" was a frequent refrain in these ads. The "Mothers know" ad is especially interesting because the copy is in the first person. "I have talked to hundreds" of mothers, the copy states. The "I" is the "Health Doctor," author of the "real book," Health Beauty, which the reader can obtain from Lever Brothers, Lifebuoy's manufacturers, for ten cents. Yet, as the copy also proclaims, "Mother is the health doctor." Presumably, the mothers reading the ad were to identify the "I" as themselves even as they were also to identify with the "hundreds" of mothers who expressed "complete faith" in the soap.
Inventing an expert such as the "Health Doctor" was a common ploy among advertisers. Unlike some ad campaigns, the agency did not give the "Health Doctor" a name but it did give her a face and made her a mother, as "The finest thing in the world. . ." ad illustrates. This ad also illustrates another "Lifebuoy family," although it did not use that phrase as other ads did. "I simply cannot find the words to express the emotions aroused by this lovely picture," the "Health Doctor" says, adding that "I wish it could hang in every American home."
What is striking about the picture, given that it is part of an advertisement, is the size of the family. As Roland Marchand noted, advertisements rarely pictured more than two children. Here there are four, all under ten years of age. Why so many? This is not an exception. "Lifebuoy families" ads featured lots of small children.
One answer is the influence of the eugenics movement. At state fairs across the country throughout the 1920s the Eugenics Society of the United States sponsored "Fitter Family" contests. These attracted thousands of contestants who answered questions about their physical and mental health, their churchgoing or lack thereof, their hobbies and amusements, and other matters. Their responses were scored; families with a grade of B+ or higher received a medal bearing the legend "Yea, I have a goodly heritage." The family with the highest score were pronounced the "fittest" average or large family. The pictures below come from the Eugenics Archive project of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and show winners from the Kansas State Fair (top two), the Eastern States Exposition in Massachusetts, and the Texas State Fair.
As demonstrated by the throngs who visited its exhibits and entered its "Fitter Family" and "Beautiful Baby" contests, the Eugenics Society enjoyed considerable success in getting its message out. The assistant director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Eugenics Office, Harry H. Laughlin, testified before Congress in favor of restricting immigration. School systems across the country adopted I.Q. testing and "tracked" students accordingly. States adopted "race purity" laws as well as measures calling for the sterilization of the "unfit." Hiram Wesley Evans, Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, quoted Laughlin and other leading eugenicists in denouncing "The Menace of Modern Immigration," a speech given in 1923 on "Klan Day" at the Texas State Fair. By 1924 the KKK had enrolled an estimated four million members. Millions more sympathized with its goals.
The Eugenics message was that those with the richest genetic inheritance should mate and reproduce while those "born to be a burden to others" should be discouraged or prevented from having children. In practice this meant encouraging whites of northern and western European background to have more children and working to reduce the immigration of southern and eastern Europeans, along with Africans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders, to virtually zero. A pamphet of the Eugenics Society stated the program with considerable force. Titlepage ; Page 2. The titlepage also illustrated the prestige the movement possessed in the 1920s.
The Lifebuoy campaign echoed the eugenics message. It too promoted the "healthy, happy" family as "the finest thing in the world." It too associated that family with northern and western Europe. As noted above, the only times any Lifebuoy ad featured someone lacking Nordic features was to personify the danger of contagion. Even the best of mothers, "the finest thing in the world" ad, warned "can't wash other people's children." They were "carriers" of dangerous germs just as less fit "races" were carriers of undesirable genetic traits.
"If They Could Always Be Safe From Dirt" showed a wealthy couple looking in on their sleeping children before stepping out for the evening. Tomorrow, the copy warned, the toddlers would come in contact with "a hundred dangerously dirty things," including "unclean playmates" and the "fruit of peddlars." The latter again evoked the immigrant menace. This was a conjoining of familiar stereotypes, the peddlar with his cart (see above) and the association of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe with dirt. Edward A. Ross, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin and author of the best-selling The Old World in the New (1912), quoted an unnamed physician in his chapter on "Racial Consequences of Immigration." "'The Slavs are immune to certain kinds of dirt. They can stand what would kill a white man.'" In 1920, an official of the War Relief Administration called for the preservation in the United States of "the characteristics of the white race taken as a whole." That whole did not include Slavs or Greeks or Syrians or Jews, to name just some of the proscribed groups.
To help out in Americanizing the germ plasm already in our country, in the way we want it Americanized, there should be a Commissioner of Americanization who should know more about the laws of heredity than about pedagogy or civics. And he should have the authority to prevent the perpetuation of obviously bad and dangerous germ plasm by mixture with good. Don't call this eugenics; call it scientific Americanization.
Both the Eugenics movement and the Lifebuoy ad campaign promoted the paradoxical message that the "fit" were somehow menaced by the "less fit." Madison Grant provided the catchphrase for these fears in his The Passing of the Great Race (1915), a work which enjoyed a renewed popularity in the mid-1920s. Yet, in Darwinian terms, "fit" described success in reproducing. The "great race" could not lose out to its "less fit" competitors. If it did, that was clear proof that it was not the "great race." Grant, Ross, Laughlin and other eugenicists, however, did not measure "fitness" in Darwinian terms. So far as they were concerned, eugenics was about the "self direction of human evolution." Selection would no longer be "natural." It would be "scientific." It was a vision the J. Walter Thompson agency appropriated for Lifebuoy.
"What a splendid generation is in the making" its "Why America wins Olympics" ad exulted. "Every schoolyard [is] a training camp" while summer camps and beaches are "pouring vitality into splendid little bodies." Even more important, in millions of homes "intelligent mothers are enforcing the first law of health -- cleanliness."
Winning was a birthright, according to both the eugenics movement and the Lifebuoy campaign, belonging to those from the right sort of homes. "Of Course Your Boy Will Get The Job" one ad affirmed. "No businessman could resist those clear eyes, that alert sturdy body. He sees in your boy the qualities of success. . . ." Yet this boy still needs to be protected "from the very real dangers which will surround him." His mother, the "Health Doctor," must continue her active service in "the worldwide fight against dirt as the direct cause of almost all communicable diseases." Mothers "in every civilized country" turned to Lifebuoy in this never-ending crusade against "dirt germs."
"I do not like to deny my children the joy of playing in the dirt," one "intelligent mother" of a "Lifebuoy family" affirmed in the "Mothers Know It Protects" ad. "But when the dirt is in a city park, it might prove dangerous." Why was dirt in a city park more likely to pose a health risk than other dirt? Presumably for the same reason that public telephones, currency, trolley car straps threatened. "Other people's children" played in the park, children the "Health Doctor" could not wash, children who did not look like the children in the Lifebuoy ads and the "Fitter Family" photographs. They were children who did not have golden hair and fair skin. They grew up in crowded tenements, not in the nice homes the Lifebuoy families occupied. They rarely went to summer camp. Yet they shared public spaces. They and their parents hung on those trolley straps, breathed into the public telephones, handled dollar bills.
"Other people's children" were those whose emigration to the United States the eugenics movement helped restrict, those whose role in American public life the Klan sought to reduce or eliminate. "Other people's children" were "carriers" of disease germs and of unfit germ plasm.
None of this proves that the J. Walter Thompson agency wanted to promote eugenics or immigration restriction or the Ku Klux Klan. It wanted to sell soap. In the Lifebuoy campaign, the agency created an imaginary public health menace by preying upon very real fears of contagious disease. It misrepresented how such diseases spread and offered an illusory protection against a mythical threat. In selling soap in this way, however, the agency had to come up with ways of scaring people. It needed a bogey with which to frighten. Further, it needed to associate the danger with dirt. The bogey the agency came up with was the "carrier." "Carriers" were simply other people, however. Anyone could be a carrier, even the "Health Doctor" herself. The agency needed to link the "carrier" with dirt. For this precise commercial purpose the eugenics movement offered everything the agency needed.
For evidence the purpose was commercial one need look no further than the agency's Ivory soap campaign. Here is the promise is that using Ivory will Americanize young Giovanni or Mario, even though their mothers did not speak English. These ads, however, did not run in mass circulation newspapers or major-city daily newspapers. They ran in The American Journal of Nursing and targetted public health nurses. Its ads aimed at the general consumer featured children who looked like those in the Lifebuoy campaign.