Pears transparent soap is a brand of soap first produced and sold in 1789 by Andrew Pears at a factory just off Oxford Street in London, England. It was the world's first mass-market transparent (actually translucent) soap. Under the stewardship of Thomas J. Barratt, A. & F. Pears initiated a number of innovations in sales and marketing. According to Unilever records, Pears Soap was the world's first registered brand and is therefore the world's oldest continuously existing brand.
Andrew Pears, the son of a farmer, was born about 1770 in Cornwall and moved from his native Mevagissey to London around 1787. He completed his apprenticeship in 1789, established a barber's shop in Gerrard Street in Soho and began to produce cosmetic products. At that time Soho was a wealthy residential area, and Pears' clientele included many wealthy socialites who took great pride in their appearance. The fashion amongst the wealthy of the period was for pristine white complexions; tanned faces were associated with those who laboured out of doors. Pears found that his powders and creams were frequently being used to cover up damage caused by the harshness of the soaps and other beauty products (many of which contained arsenic or lead) that were in general use at the time. Pears began to experiment with soap purification and eventually managed to produce a gentle soap based on glycerine and other natural products. The clarity of the soap gave it a novel transparent appearance which provided a marketing advantage. To add to the appeal, Pears gave the soap an aroma reminiscent of an English garden.
In 1835 when his grandson, Francis Pears, joined the business the firm was renamed A & F Pears. After three years Andrew retired leaving Francis in charge. At The Great Exhibition of 1851 A & F Pears was awarded the prize medal for soap. Production moved to Isleworth in 1862. 23-year-old Thomas J. Barratt, sometimes referred to as the father of modern advertising, was appointed bookkeeper in 1864. The next year Francis' son, Andrew, joined A. & F. Pears as joint proprietor and ran the Isleworth factory. The same year Thomas married Mary Pears, Francis's eldest daughter, and was set to running the administration in London.
Thomas J Barratt's remarkable achievements are recorded in his own article and under Marketing below.
Following Barratt's death in April 1914 Lever Brothers took a major shareholding in A & F Pears The takeover process was completed in 1920 and marketing and other secondary functions moved to Port Sunlight in north west England but production continued at Isleworth. In the mid to late 1950s each batch of soap, about 12 a day, was tested to ensure the absence of excess alkali or free fatty acid. Production moved to Port Sunlight in the 1960s when Unilever, successor to Lever Brothers, set up a cosmetic development laboratory on the Isleworth site. A major fire on the site completely destroyed the original factory.
Pears soap was made using a process entirely different to that for other soaps. A mixture of tallow and other fats was saponified by caustic potash (potassium hydroxide) in industrial methylated spirits. After saponification was completed the resulting glycerol was left in the batch. Batches were made not in huge pans, but in small kettle-like vessels and as soon as the translucent amber liquid had cooled enough to solidify it was extruded into opaque oval bars that were cut into bath- or toilet weight tablets ready for beginning their long drying spell in the drying rooms (ovens). The hot liquid soap fresh from the vessel had a total fatty matter (TFM) of 45% compared with the TFMs of 70-80% usual in soaps made by the conventional method. The TFM increased considerably as the alcohol content fell during drying.
The entire Pears plant was a small almost self-contained annexe situated at the rear of the administration block. The plant was run by a handful of staff who not only had experience of the specialised process, but had developed immunity to the effects of breathing the alcohol-laden atmosphere in the plant building.
The concave shape of the soap is formed by shrinkage while the soap is drying, and is not due to deliberate moulding.
Bars of soap produced in the factory come in two sizes: 75 g and 125 g. Nowadays this soap comes in three colours - the classic amber, the green, and mint (blue color). Each variety has a unique aroma. The soap now comes in two new sizes: 69 g and 119 g.
Recent changes to quality of ingredients used in the manufacturing process (see "Changes to the Formula" below) have resulted in a noticeably different shape (flatter rather than concave) and difference in scent with the classic transparent amber bar. The aroma, which used to be a characteristically mild, spicy fragrance, is now a very strong scent. In the UK the same has been noticed in 2009 with a scent almost like coal tar and with a reduction in the moisturizing properties, and in a differently shaped bar.
From the late 19th century, Pears soap was famous for its marketing, masterminded by Barratt. Its campaign using Millais's painting Bubbles continued over many decades. As with many other brands at the time, at the beginning of the 20th century Pears also used their product as a sign of the prevailing European concept of the "civilizing mission" of empire and trade, in which the soap stands for progress.
In the late 19th century, Pears used coins countermarked with "Pears Soap" as a way of advertising its soap. The coins used were French, imported by Pears. About the same size and shape as the British pennies at the time, these French coins were generally accepted as pennies in Britain.
Lillie Langtry's famous ivory complexion brought her income as the first woman to endorse a commercial product, advertising Pears Soap. Her fee was allied to her weight so she was paid 'pound for pound'.
Between 1891 and 1925 Pears issued their now famous annuals, now highly collectible. From the early 20th century Pears was famous for the annual "Miss Pears" competition in which parents entered their children into the high-profile hunt for a young brand ambassador to be used on packaging and in consumer promotions. Many Miss Pears subsequently entered acting or modelling.
Pears' Cyclopedia is a one volume encyclopaedia continuously published, in the United Kingdom, since December 1897.
Changes to the formula
Pears' unique manufacturing process required the soap to be dried for up to thirteen weeks so that the alcohol used in the process could evaporate and be re-used. The soap bars were laid out on wooden trays in drying rooms known as "ovens" about the size of a domestic garage. Bars were placed on trays with both sides open to the air. Ovens were graded in warmth from around 100F (39C) to 70F (21C) and as drying proceeded trolleys loaded with trays were moved to progressively cooler ovens. In practice the soap often became opaque, and Unilever explored a variety of options to prevent this, all of which would have added to the cost:
- rotating the trays periodically so that those at the top were moved to the bottom;
- adding large paddle wheels to circulate the air better;
- completely re-duct the way in which the warm air entered the ovens to achieve the same effect.
In 1971, a team from Pears' advertising agency, Foote Cone and Belding, visited the factory in Port Sunlight to see how the soap was made and get some inspiration for their next advertising campaign. During the visit they attended one of Unilever's product meetings, where Richard Oldcorn, the agency account director, suggested a novel solution. He had read chemistry at Cambridge University and had previously worked for Unilever, with a company that made industrial margarines. There had been a problem with lard going rancid due to oxidation, and Oldcorn remembered that Butylated Hydroxytoluene had been used as an antioxidant which successfully overcame the problem. He suggested this during the meeting, and the solution was adopted. It allowed not only different coloured transparent Pears soap to be produced, but also Pears shampoos.
In October 2009 the formula for the transparent amber soap was altered from the original to become 'Gentle Care' wrapped in an inner cellophane covering. The new soap was slightly softer in texture and lasted half as long, but its most noticeable difference was its scent. The aroma of the classic transparent amber bar, which used to be characterized by a mild, spicy herbal fragrance, had been altered to a stronger aromatic scent. The "Hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic" claim was dropped because of the new ingredients. Furthermore, the 3-month aging process described on the original box does not appear on the box of the 'Gentle Care' formula, suggesting that the "improvements" were made so that the soap could be produced more quickly and with cheaper ingredients, therefore increasing profits.
On 6 January 2010, after a Facebook campaign, it was reported in the media that Pears planned to abandon the new formula and that by March 2010 a new version would be available that is "much closer to the original". On 8 January 2010, it was reported in the media that Pears would not abandon the new formula but "make further improvements, by delivering a scent that more closely resembles the original formula. However, this has not occurred.
Comparison of the historical formulas
- The information in the table below needs to be verified. The dates in particular need documented support. Also, the information may need to be expanded as there are at least four different ingredient listings known to exist for Pears soap in recent years.
An analysis of the current ingredients list indeed reveals items such as limonene, whose variant called L-limonene is characterised by a "turpentine-like odour" also typical of frankincense. Ironically, it is an insecticide as well. However, this item was already present in the pre-2009 formula, so the perceived change might be explained not only by different ingredients but also by different proportions of ingredients.
The latest 2009 modification mainly breaks down to an addition of artificial colouring and substances whose hypothetical function is either as detergents (i.e. cleaning substances) or stabilisers (i.e. product longevity enhancers). However, even the pre-2009 formula was a far cry from the original one. The latter was completely free of industrial cleaners, free of synthetic colours and (apparently) free of synthetic odorants, whose place was occupied by natural herbal fragrances. However, one unknown in the original formula is the "Pears fragrance essence": because of it, the customer cannot be certain whether the "new" fragrant compounds are indeed all new—or simply formerly unlisted items.
During production at Port Sunlight the glycerol (glycerine) content was a result of not removing that formed during the manufacturing process.
|Old-stock soaps||Hindustan Unilever Ltd., Cert Brands-distributed bars||New soaps|
|1789–2009||2003–2009||October 2009 – now (July 2013?)|
|Group I: Traditional ingredients|
|Group II: Trivial introductions|
|Group III: Detergents, stabilisers/preservatives, emulsifiers|
|Group IV: Colouring agents|
|Group V: New fragrance agents|
- Geoffrey Jones, Beauty Imagined:A History of the Global Beauty Industry, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010 ISBN 0199639620
- A. and F. Pears and Lever Brothers. The Times, Friday, Aug 14, 1914; pg. 2; Issue 40604. Category: Business and Finance
- A. And F. Pears And Lever Brothers. The Times, Wednesday, Aug 18, 1920; pg. 10; Issue 42492.
- Paul G. Pierpaoli, Jr., entry on "White Man's Burden," The Encyclopedia of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars: A Political, Social, and Military History, edited by Spencer C. Tucker (ABC-Clio, 2009), p. 696.