While browsing the Museum’s 120+ year history and its more than 3,500 exhibitions, patterns reflecting shifts in cultural taste, local craft, and major world events, are apparent.
History also reveals patterns that sidestep the obvious cultural or historical narrative to stand on their own. One such pattern appears in the series of soap sculpture competitions held at the Museum (known then as the Milwaukee Art Institute) from 1927-1940. At least fifteen national and local soap-sculpture competitions and exhibitions were held over a tirteen-year period.
How did soap sculpting become such a popular part of local and national practice so quickly? The answer, it turns out, was no further away than my own grocery list.
In the 1920s, Procter & Gamble’s Ivory soap faced a serious marketing challenge. Children, it seemed, did not like being washed with it. And, if children did not like washing with it, they would not grow up to be adults that liked buying it. According to a fascinating interview with Edward L. Bernays, a marketing executive with Procter & Gamble at the time, the challenge was clear: convince kids to like Ivory soap. Around the same time, Bernays learned that an artist was sculpting with soap as a cheap alternative to sculpting with wax. Suddenly, the soap sculpture competition was born, and a new national craft gauntlet was laid.
For the next fifteen years, Procter & Gamble sponsored a spirited competition which included large money prizes and prestige. The Procter & Gamble-sponsored competitions were not for the faint of heart.
Images of distinguished judges, including Museum representatives, industry executives, and famous artists peering over hundreds of carved subject matter–the likes of Alexander Archipenko, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, and William Zorach–were splashed across newspapers and magazines. Competitors included everyone from the young Eero Saarinen to local scout troops. Procter & Gamble victors took home cash prizes (equaling as much as $3,775 in the national soap sculpting competition of 1950–the equivalent of over $30,000 today), won a lavish trip to New York, and more.
But how does a marketing ploy become so successful that, as Bernays claimed, one year after launching the competition, 23 million children in public schools were carving soap as a creative outlet?
By the time of the Great Depression, the machine age had changed the work, the workforce, the landscape, and even the products available for purchase–triggering a dramatic resurgence of do-it-yourself hobbies. With a cheap bar of soap, a pen knife, an orange stick, and a cleverly employed hair pin, anyone could carve a flower, a portrait, a cattle scene, or a tree. And, if you were talented enough, a cash prize awaited you.
In the blink of an eye, an industry was born: a national passion for soap-sculpting produced books, manuals, pamphlets, and classes. Procter & Gamble even ran Ivory soap-carving lessons in local newspapers, complete with a short tale about the carved subject, steps on how to carve the image–and, of course, a well-placed reminder that your mother can use Ivory soap to clean dishes, clothes, and other pretty things.
As it turned out, the creative outlet was no further away than every sink in the land (or, should I say, every Procter & Gamble soap advertisement at hand).
Marshall, Jennifer Jane. 2008. “Clean Cuts”. Winterthur Portfolio. 42 (1): 51-761.
“Procter & Gamble Ivory Soap Sculpture Competition” Video, The Museum of Public Relations.
23rd Soap Sculpture Competition Floridian Wins Award, The Miami News – Jul 9, 1950