The History of Soaps and Detergents

An Advertisement for Ivory Soap from Procter and Gamble circa 1879.
An Advertisement for Ivory Soap from Procter and Gamble circa 1879. Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images


While employed by Procter & Gamble, Dennis Weatherby developed and received a patent for the automatic dishwasher detergent known by the tradename Cascade. He received his Masters degree in chemical engineering from the University of Dayton in 1984. Cascade is a registered trademark of the Procter & Gamble Company.

Ivory Soap 

A soap maker at the Procter and Gamble company had no idea a new innovation was about to surface when he went to lunch one day. In 1879, he forgot to turn off the soap mixer, and more than the usual amount of air was shipped into the batch of pure white soap that the company sold under the name “The White Soap.”

Fearing he would get in trouble, the soap maker kept the mistake a secret and packaged and shipped the air-filled soap to customers around the country. Soon customers were asking for more "soap that floats." After company officials found out what happened, they turned it into one of the company’s most successful products, Ivory Soap.


The English company Lever Brothers created Lifebuoy soap in 1895 and sold it as an antiseptic soap. They later changed the product’s name to Lifebuoy Health Soap. Lever Brothers first coined the term "B.O.," which stands for bad odor, as part of their marketing company for the soap.

Liquid Soap 

William Shepphard first patented liquid soap on August 22, 1865. And in 1980, the Minnetonka Corporation introduced the first modern liquid soap called SOFT SOAP brand liquid soap. Minnetonka cornered the liquid soap market by buying up the entire supply of the plastic pumps needed for the liquid soap dispensers. In 1987, the Colgate Company acquired the liquid soap business from Minnetonka.

Palmolive Soap 

In 1864, Caleb Johnson founded a soap company called the B.J. Johnson Soap Company in Milwaukee. In 1898, this company introduced a soap made of palm and olive oils called Palmolive. It was so successful that that the B.J. Johnson Soap Co. changed their name to Palmolive in 1917.

In 1972, another soap making company called the Peet Brothers Company was founded in Kansas City. In 1927, Palmolive merged with them to became Palmolive Peet. In 1928, Palmolive Peet merged with Colgate to form Colgate-Palmolive-Peet. In 1953, the name was shortened to just Colgate-Palmolive. Ajax cleanser was one of their first major brand names introduced in the early 1940s.


Chemist Harry A. Cole of Jackson, Mississippi invented and sold the pine-scented cleaning product called Pine-Sol in 1929. Pine-Sol is the biggest selling household cleaner in the world. Cole sold Pine-Sol shortly after its invention and went on to create more pine oil cleaners called FYNE PINE and PINE PLUS. Together with his sons, Cole started the H. A. Cole Products Co. to manufacture and sell his products. Pine forests surrounded the area where the Coles lived and provided an ample supply of pine oil.

S.O.S Soap Pads 

In 1917, Ed Cox of San Francisco, an aluminum pot salesman, invented a pre-soaped pad with which to clean pots. As a way of introducing himself to potential new customers, Cox made the soap incrusted steel-wool pads as a calling card. His wife named the soap pads S.O.S. or "Save Our Saucepans." Cox soon found out that the S.O.S pads were a hotter product than his pots and pans.


In the 1920s, Americans used soap flakes to clean their laundry. The problem was that the flakes performed poorly in hard water. They left a ring in the washing machine, dulled colors and turned whites gray. To address this problem, Procter & Gamble began an ambitious mission to change the way Americans washed their clothes.

This led to the discovery of two-part molecules which they called synthetic surfactants. Each part of the "miracle molecules" executed a specific function. One pulled grease and dirt from the clothes, while the other suspended dirt until it could be rinsed away. In 1933, this discovery was introduced in a detergent called "Dreft," which could only handle lightly soiled jobs.

The next goal was to create a detergent that could clean heavily soiled clothes. That detergent was Tide. Created in 1943, Tide detergent was the combination of synthetic surfactants and "builders." The builders helped the synthetic surfactants penetrate the clothes more deeply to attack greasy, difficult stains. Tide was introduced to test markets in October 1946 as the world’s first heavy-duty detergent.

Tide detergent was improved 22 times during its first 21 years on the market and Procter & Gable still strives for perfection. Each year, researchers duplicate the mineral content of water from all parts of the United States and wash 50,000 loads of laundry to test Tide detergent’s consistency and performance.

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Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "The History of Soaps and Detergents." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 26). The History of Soaps and Detergents. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Soaps and Detergents." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).