Vintage Ads: It’s a Dirty World

In 1923, marketers tried to use scare tactics to sell more soap.

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This ad would have struck a fearful chord in the hearts of Post readers in 1923. They’d learned the link between dirt and disease in the late 1800s, when the country went through a great “sanitary awakening.” In the 1900s, stories about Typhoid Mary showed them how humans could unknowingly carry disease to others. And the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 proved how quickly a lethal disease could spread.

This Lifebuoy soap ad reminded city-dwelling readers that they were surrounded by and in contact with thousands of disease carriers through public phones, door knobs, stair railings, and money. Lifebuoy claimed to offer strong, medicinal protection. This octagonal, coral-colored bar smelled strongly of carbolic acid, then a widely used antiseptic. Its makers called it a “wholesome, pungent odor.”

It enjoyed its greatest popularity between 1932 and 1948, but sales began to fall in the post-war years when soap rationing ended and consumers switched to one of the many perfumed soaps on the market.


This article appears in the July/August 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. I love the ad copy here. Extremely well written and accurately on point. While true Lever Bros. was trying to sell more (Lifebuoy) soap they were doing a public service about all the places germs are, how you can get sick, and how certain people are “carriers” of disease germs, but won’t get sick themselves.

    Almost word for word what we were reading and being told a few years back with COVID. 1923 was only several years after the Spanish flu pandemic and less than 20 after the Typhoid Mary disaster. To me, it does stop short of being too heavy-handed with the scare tactics, but admittedly gets close enough.

    The artwork here is really good. They have the man in the foreground looking worried with a worn out shirt and hat, and the people in the background happier and better dressed. It’s overt, subtle and subliminal all at the same time depending on your own personal perceptions.


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