How Soap Operas Got Their Name; Why Are Soaps Called Soaps?

The story behind daytime dramas moniker

Procter & Gamble "P and G" soap, early to mid 20th century packaging, photographed at Edmonds Historical Museum, Edmonds, Washington, USA.
Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever wondered how soap operas got their name? Why the daytime dramas that have filled afternoon television screens for years became known simply as soaps? What is the real story behind daytime dramas' popular moniker?

While soap operas themselves have complicated stories involving makeups, breakups, betrayals and some really dirty dark secrets, the story behind the term "soap opera" is simple.

And -- surprise -- it's actually quite squeaky clean.

In the 1920s, the radio industry desperately wanted advertisers to help increase station ratings and profits. Radio executives managed to convince businesses that sold household goods to sponsor radio shows. To do this, they needed the programming to appeal to the main consumers of household goods. Since most wives and mothers stayed at home in those days, female homemakers fit the bill. Thus, the daytime serial was born.

It didn't take long for radio networks to get in on the deal. Procter & Gamble's Oxydol soap powder, which was running behind Lever Brothers' Rinso among leading laundry detergents, was the first to get in on the act. The agency used a one cent sale -- consumers who bought one box of the product at the regular price would receive a second box for a penny -- to encourage consumers to try Oxydol. Then the company put their product into daytime radio by sponsoring Ma Perkins, a drama about a woman who ran a lumberyard in Rushville Center, in 1933.

 The show, along with its ad, was tested on a station in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the summer and fall. In December, it went national on NBC. 

Procter & Gamble began to both sponsor and produce numerous new radio shows, which became known as soap operas. It was a huge success for the company, as faithful listeners became loyal buyers of their products and flocked to their local grocery stores.

In the decades that followed, the soap company sponsored some 20 soap operas on radio and television and became a pioneer in producing award-winning daytime serials. Among its longtime hits were As The World Turns, which ran from to 1956 to 2010, and Guiding Light, which aired from 1952 to 2009. 

Along the say, the name "soap operas" stuck. And so did the sponsors, for the most part. The Young & the Restless is still sponsored, in part, by Procter & Gamble, but a much broader array of advertisers now support soaps, for many of the same reasons Procter & Gamble did in the 1930s.

In more recent years, Procter & Gamble and other sponsors have segued in a new direction, as they have begun focusing on how to move soaps online. It's a concept that has slowly been gaining momentum.