|Advertising card for B.T. Babbitt's soap, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana|
Friday, May 6, 2011
One of the largest and most diverse collections in the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center is the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana. Many of the items collected by Isadore Warshaw are what we often call ephemera—items considered ephemeral in terms of their value and life expectancy. They were intended or expected to be discarded after their immediate usage. Ephemera, although not a precise term, might include such expendable items as theater and concert tickets, newspapers, and advertisements. The Warshaw Collection contains thousands of advertising cards for various products, and among the most fascinating are the inventive and colorful lithographic cards of the late nineteenth century, such as the one pictured here, a card extolling the virtues of B.T. Babbitt’s Best Soap and Soap Powder. Here two patriotic children with flags are lifted aloft in a Babbitt’s soap powder box attached to a balloon, and the caption, “Soars Above Them All,” makes the image a metaphor for the quality of Mr. Babbitt’s celebrated soap.
Benjamin Talbot Babbitt (1809-1889), his Wikipedia entry tells us, “was a self-made American businessman and inventor who amassed a fortune in the soap industry, manufacturing Babbitt's Best Soap.” He held more than one hundred patents and invented his own processes to manufacture various types of soap, including the first soap in the form of individual bars. He was also considered an advertising genius, and his soap was among the first nationally advertised products. Unfortunately, his name became sullied when Sinclair Lewis chose "Babbitt" for the name of a vulgar businessman in his eponymous novel of 1922.
Although the image on this card is delightful and humorous, I am actually more interested in the extravagant prose on the back of the card under the title, “Beautiful Tribute to Women.” Here Babbitt and his company seem to be praising the virtues of women, perhaps especially mothers, his primary customers, in order to flatter them into purchasing his products for themselves and their families. The text follows:
"Place her among the flowers, foster her as a tender plant, and she is a thing of fancy, waywardness, and folly--annoyed by a dewdrop, fretted by the touch of a butterfly's wing, ready to faint at the sound of a beetle or the rattling of a window-sash at night, and is overpowered by the perfume of a rosebud. But let real calamity come, rouse her affections, enkindle the fires of her heart, and mark her then--how strong is her heart? Place her in the heat of battle--give her a child, a bird, or any thing to protect--and see her in a relative instance, lifting her white arms as a shield, as her own blood crimsons her upturned forehead, praying for her life to protect the helpless. Transplant her in the dark places of the earth, call forth her energies to action, and her breath becomes a healing, her presence a blessing. She disputes inch by inch the strides of a stalking pestilence, when man, the strong and brave, pale and affrighted, shrinks away. Misfortune hurts her not; she wears away a life in silent endurance, and goes forth with less timidity than to her bridal. In prosperity she is a bud full of odors, waiting for the winds of adversity to scatter them abroad--gold, valuable, but untried in the furnace. In short, woman is a miracle, a mystery, the center from which radiates the charm of existence."
Although the sentiment is rather “over the top” and somewhat unenlightened for twenty-first century tastes, I selected this item as an appropriate Mother’s Day tribute. I certainly agree that mothers are a "miracle." Attitudes toward both gender and race have evolved since this card was produced, but I trust readers will be charmed by the text and not get into a lather about it (I couldn't resist that). It is a powerful example of the confluence of social history and business and advertising history residing in such “ephemera.” This text was printed with quotation marks but without attribution, so I suspect it may be a familiar or popular passage of the era. I would be grateful if some literary scholar could identify it so I can add that information to the catalog record!