An iconic soap with two strange claims to fame: “it floats” and it is “99+44⁄100% pure.”

An iconic soap with two strange claims to fame: "it floats" and it is "99+44⁄100% pure."
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New York

Walk into a Walmart, Target, any drugstore chain in your neighborhood or on a corner cellar for New York City dwellers, and you’ll likely find a bar of Ivory Soap, or a pack of 10 bars for under $5, on the shelf.

This iconic bar of soap, invented nearly 150 years ago, has become a part of Americans in large part due to the publicity of its two rare merits: “Fleet” and it is “99+44⁄100% pure.”

The original product is a plain, white, mildly scented bar soap with the name “IVORY” engraved on it. Amazingly, it’s stayed exactly that way for 143 years, save for the addition of an aloe-scented variety, and it’s still around.

The longevity of Ivory soap goes against a notoriously fickle market for personal beauty products where new trends can come and go in an instant.

Procter & Gamble first sold Ivory Soap in 1879 under the slogan

So why has Ivory Soap stood the test of time? One theory is due to clever advertising and branding of it. Ivory Soap’s packaging famously and relentlessly promotes the attributes of purity and buoyancy.

“That’s brilliant execution,” said David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding, a branding expert who helped name such popular consumer products as “Swiffer,” “Blackberry” and “Dasani.”

“Just think about it. How many other soaps can you think of that promote an attribute that is analogous to ‘float’?” Placek said. “I can’t think of another. It reminds you of it because it also makes you think of other soaps that don’t float.” .

Because Ivory Soap’s slogans have remained constant and enduring for more than a century and through generations of consumers, they have sunk into the subconscious, Placek said.

“Even if you haven’t used Ivory Soap, you know it and you remember it,” he said.

Ivory Soap is a Procter & Gamble creation. Not the huge multinational consumer brand conglomerate it is today, but two people: Harley Procter (son of P&G co-founder William Procter) and James N. Gamble (son of fellow P&G co-founder James Gamble).

It was at the end of the 19th century, a time when river baths dominated a large part of the population. Now imagine losing control over a bar of soap when it’s waist-deep in murky water.

But what if there was a bar of soap that could float?

An advertisement for Ivory Soap from Procter and Gamble circa 1879. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

A adage article on the invention of Ivory Soap explained how Gamble at the time was trying to create a new type of mildly formulated soap. The research and development process inadvertently created a batch of soap that was found to float because air bubbles were trapped inside it.

Gamble, according to the P&G website, acknowledged that “floating soap” could revolutionize the laundry experience in more ways than one.

He initially thought that floating soap could be used for both laundry and dishwashing. Over time, bar soap became primarily a bath soap.

Naming the soap was another story.

According to P&G legend, Harley Procter came across the word “ivory” while attending church and thought it fit the look of the new soap perfectly and both men adopted “Ivory Soap” as their name.

Advertisement for Ivory Soap from the Procter and Gamble Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1897. (Photo by Jay Paull/Getty Images)

P&G launched the soap in 1879 promoting it not only as a bar of soap that floated but also for its purity.

That claim, according to the company, depended on a study of the soap conducted by chemistry professors at the request of the inventors. One study showed that soap had only a small amount of impurities, 56/100 of a percent, of a non-soap material.

So they decided to highlight that in advertising for Ivory Soap, rounding it off to create their second iconic tagline: “99 and 44-100% pure.”

P&G maintains that while it continues to innovate its Ivory Soap, the product is still made with a simple formula free of dyes and parabens meant to gently cleanse skin.

However, it has extended the brand to other products.

Ivory Soap advertising poster (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

In the 1950s, according to the adage article, P&G launched a light-duty dishwashing detergent under the Ivory brand, followed by liquid hand soaps in the 1980s and moisturizing body washes in 1996 with the introduction of Ivory Moisture Care. Today, Ivory’s personal care portfolio also includes baby care products, hair and body washes, and deodorants.

Ivory soap has become so iconic that in 2001 P&G donated a collection of its Ivory Soap artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution, including its first advertising and an unused bar of soap from the 1940s.

Lexicon Branding’s Placek said Ivory Soap is a product well ahead of its time. “It was ‘pure’ before pure, clean and simple products became so popular with today’s consumers,” he said.

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