Imperialism is a dense and complicated subject, and these soap adverts show us the culture and mindset of a particular people (British colonialists) towards another (non-British/white) during a certain period in history.
In the advert shown here, a black baby becomes white after using Pears’ soap to wash.
This infers that the black skin is dirty, and that a clean skin is a white one.
As Pears’ soap is marketed as one that improves the complexion, white skin is therefore seen to be an improvement of black skin.
Such adverts are a reflection of European imperialism and racism prevalent during the colonial era.
They are an indicator of the political and cultural ethos at the time – racial supremacy and slavery – all of which were widely accepted as the norm.
Sadly, I believe this is still rampant among society today, manifested merely in a less overt fashion. Below are more examples of such adverts by Pears’ Soap, this time directly linking the act of colonising with the use of its products.
The Birth of Civilization – A Message from the Sea
“The consumption of soap is a measure of the wealth, civilisation, wealth and purity of the people.” Liebic. Specially drawn by H.S. Marks for the proprietors of Pears’ Soap.
The Formula of British Conquest
“Even if our invasion of Soudan has done nothing else, it has at any rate left the Arab something to puzzle his fuzzy head over, for the legend ‘PEARS’ SOAP IS THE BEST’ inscribed in huge white characters on the rock which marks the furthest point of our advance towards Berber will tax all the wits of the Dervishes of the Desert to translate.”
– Phil Robinson, war correspondent in the Soudan, of the Daily Telegraph in London 1884
Makes you laugh now, but makes you want to cry too.