Milwaukee in the late 1800s was a pretty dirty place. In addition to the usual messiness of urban life in the era, the city was full of hard and filthy industrial work – tanneries, mills, machine shops and more. Milwaukee was a national leader in industry and, although never documented as such, would have also been a national leader in making dirty hands. It seems natural then, that the city would have a need for soap.
In 1864, Benedict Johnson arrived in the city from Buffalo, where he had been working for the Beard Soap Works. With an advance from his old boss, Johnson established B. J. Johnson & Company to manufacture soap and related products. After dabbling in items like baking powder and candles, Johnson focused his attention on soap in 1877. The company had a run of success over the next decade and half – relying heavily on advertising and promotion to sell their products.
In 1898, the company introduced the soap that would become one of Milwaukee’s most famous native products. Using palm and olive oils as well as cocoa butter, the result was a distinctive light green bar the company called Palmolive. The product proved wildly popular, thanks in large part to an advertising campaign that promoted it as an exotic cleanser that would have been favored in the age of the Pharaohs.
By the early 1900s, Palmolive was the world’s best-selling soap and a full line of Palmolive cosmetics soon followed. In 1923, the company – now know as the Palmolive Soap Company – moved its headquarters to Chicago, but maintained Milwaukee production facility – located beneath the Sixth Street Viaduct – until 1934, when the 70-year-old plant was shuttered.
In the Roaring Twenties, Palmolive introduced a new tagline, “Keep that Schoolgirl Complexion,” playing to both the era’s sexual liberation and the insecurities brought about by the birth of the media age. In 1928, the company merged with Colgate and the resulting firm, Colgate-Palmolive, still exists today and does over $3 billion worth of business annually. This bar of Palmolive soap, dating to about 1930, serves as a reminder of the simple product that helped to launch an empire.
Antique Milwaukee is a new web Milwaukee Magazine web series that takes a closer look at objects and curiosities from around town that have a story to tell. We’ll reveal a piece of Milwaukee’s history through a new artifact in each installment.