The average American’s daily hygiene ritual would seem unusual—nay, obsessive—to our forebears a hundred years ago. From mouthwash to deodorant, most of our hygiene products were invented in the past century. To sell them, the advertising industry had to create pseudoscientific maladies like “bad breath” and “body odor.”
Americans had to be convinced their breath was rotten and theirs armpits stank. It did not happen by accident. “Advertising and toilet soap grew up together,” says Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt on Clean. As advertising exploded in the early 20th century, so did our obsession with personal hygiene.
Even our very notion of “soap” changed. Until the mid-19th century, “soap” meant laundry soap, the caustic stuff used for scrubbing soiled linens and clothes. A kinder, gentler alternative was invented for cleaning the body, and it had to be called “toilet soap” to distinguish from the unrefined stuff. Today, “toilet soap” is a superfluous designation. Toilet soap is simply soap.