History Stories


1950s Lessons in Germ-Fighting from a Giant Bar of Talking Soap

Although soap was invented thousands of years ago, health educators in the 1950s were still trying to find creative ways to get kids to actually use it.

History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that getting kids to care about their personal hygiene will always be a Herculean task. The most popular toys and sleep training techniques may change with the decades, but one thing will always remain the same: convincing your little ones to wash up is a challenge.

In 1951, a group of well-meaning adults came up with an idea for how to convince young boys and girls to wash their hands. They created an educational video starring a ghostly bar of talking soap that visited kids in the middle of the night to instruct them on the importance of cleanliness. Watching this over 60 years later, it’s hard to determine whether children in the 1950s found this to be informative or merely terrifying. But what we do know is that this cinematic gem is a hilarious look back at how this centuries-old hygiene problem was tackled many decades ago.

Soap Is Very, Very Old 

While the identity of the clean freak who invented soap remains unknown, the earliest use of the sudsy cleanser on record dates back to the ancient Babylonians around 2800 B.C. After discovering that a mix of animal fat and ash would produce a cleaning product, they helpfully wrote the recipe down on clay tablets for archeologists to later find.

The Babylonians weren’t the only ancients who benefited from this concoction. In the 1st century, the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote about the early Romans’ soap making techniques, and bars of soap were discovered in the excavated ruins of Pompeii after the Mount Vesuvius eruption buried the city in 78 A.D.

Early American Colonialists Were a Bit Stinky

It’s not just our stubborn little ones who have resisted what we now know as the basic and essential standards of hygiene. It took the early Americans over a hundred years to discover the benefits of bathing. According to author James Ciment in his book Colonial America, bathing for the purpose of cleanliness didn’t hit most Americans’ radars until the 1780s. Before that, they thought a good splash in the water was only useful as a remedy for illness, and therefore indulged only occasionally and usually sans soap.

It didn’t help that the quality of their soap was poor. Most early Americans made the product themselves using essentially the same formula as the ancient Babylonians. The result was a crude form of our bubbly mainstay that was harsh on the skin. Because of this—and their general lack of hygiene knowledge—they primarily focused on cleaning clothes and dishes rather than their own bodies, before things took a healthier turn in the 19th century.

And Then Germs Were Discovered 

Humans may have been washing their clothes—and less frequently themselves—with soap for thousands of years, but they did so without knowing that they were ridding themselves of an often dangerous force that could cause illness and death. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that germ theory was developed, thanks to the work of a trio of scientists.

It all started with Louis Pasteur, who discovered that microbes played a role in facilitating decomposition. This led him to find that heat could kill those same organisms and that they could also be used to make vaccines to safeguard against disease. The surgeon Joseph Lister came along and developed the hygiene policies still used in the medical field today. It wasn’t until 1875 that it became customary for surgeons to wash their hands before they operated on patients. And then Robert Koch determined that every disease can be traced back to individual germs, and that those germs are often communicable.

The foundation of germ theory fundamentally changed what we know about disease and how we prevent it. Today, washing your hands to keep from getting sick may be an unconscious act—especially during a particularly virulent flu season—but it took us many years to get here, both as a civilization and as individuals. After all, we were all once kids who had to be taught to wash our hands…just hopefully not by a talking bar of soap.

READ MORE: It Took Surprisingly Long for Doctors to Figure Out the Benefits of Hand Washing

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