Soap, Race, and Cleanliness

Raminder Saini

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“The Fairbank ‘Darky Twins’ on the ‘Gold Dust’ package are as familiar to the average housewife as the face of the family clock.” Maine Farmer, April 1, 1897

The “Gold Dust Twins” were a pair of African American caricatures displayed on a popular box of washing powder from the 1880s to the early 1900s. These twins, grotesquely referred to as “the Darky Twins” by the Maine Farmer in 1897, symbolized racial attitudes that Victorians often held at the time. But who were the twins? And why should we be talking about washing powder?

Soap in the late 1800s represented more than the physical aspect of “getting clean.” The Victorian idea of cleanliness became tied to the concept of imperialism and Victorian superiority. Many Victorians, as it is well known, felt superior to the people they colonized (from Africans and Indians to Indigenous communities in Canada). Victorians also came to associate whiteness with cleanliness and blackness with dirtiness – a notion co-opted rather successfully by soap manufacturers in racialized advertisements. Take for example an advertisement for Pears’ Soap:

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pears-1884.jpg

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pears-1884.jpg

This ad plays on the themes of imperialism and racial stereotypes that were common to the Victorian era. In the image to the left you have an African child being placed into a tub and about to be washed with Pears’ Soap, which is held in the hand of the white child. In the next image, the African child no longer has black skin. The child has been scrubbed clean of its “dirtiness” and has thus been “civilized” (or so it is implied). As the ad reads, “I have found PEARS’ SOAP matchless for the Hands and Complexion.” This rather horrific advertisement plays on the Victorian mission to “civilize” colonized peoples.


At Dalnavert, the laundry soap on display is “Gold Dust Washing Powder.” “Gold Dust” was an American soap, manufactured by the N.K. Fairbank Company in Chicago. This company had factories in both North America and Europe. According to The New York Times (March 17, 1895), this soap was the leading washing powder at the time. It is only fitting then that a box of it lies in the laundry room at Dalnavert.

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More of an all-purpose cleaner than strictly laundry soap, “Gold Dust” was meant to make the life of a housewife easier. How? Well, the sides of the box depict two African American twins who appear to happily be doing household chores. The twins, incidentally, represent the power or strength of two cleaners in one, efficient washing powder. For middle-class Victorians, the less work a housewife could do with her hands, the more time she could devote to leisure activities that would better allow her to mimic the lifestyle of the upper classes. As it stood, one main division between middle and upper class families was that the upper classes never had to sully their hands with simple household chores—that’s what servants were for!

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This image, though, of African American twins happily doing housework is yet another expression of contemporary racial attitudes. Since the washing powder is American, it is a different kind of advertising from that of the Pears’ Soap Company. Arguably, the image of the “Gold Dust” twins align better with slavery in America and the use of Africans for domestic labor than simply Victorian ideas of cleanliness and civilization. But regardless of the difference, racial soap advertisements enforced widespread ideas of late-nineteenth century imperial and racial superiority. Worse, people literally bought into these stereotypes by buying products from N.K. Fairbanks and Pears. Accordingly, the soap on display at Dalnavert goes beyond merely displaying a common household item and instead showcases a connection to the larger forces at play in both North America and the British Empire when it came to cleanliness.

Charles Dickens | Sunday, December 16 @ 1:30 PM

The Man Behind the Carol

by Ron Robinson

 December 16th, 1:30pm

$15 | $12 Members

reserve@dalnavertmuseum.ca

After six weeks of writing, Charles Dickens published his novella A Christmas Carol on December 19, 1843. Its first run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve. While Dickens’ Christmas tale of ghosts, charity, and moral transformation became immensely popular during his lifetime, its legacy persists to this day. In fact, many Western audiences are familiar with the plot and characters of A Christmas Carol without even reading the book, and this phenomenon can be explained in part by the huge number of adaptations of the narrative since its original publication. While the full list of A Christmas Carol’s adaptations is seemingly endless, here are a few of the more popular, surprising, and intriguing versions of Dickens’ classic tale.

  •  Scrooge, or, Marley's Ghost (1901), film, UK. This short film is the earliest surviving screen adaptation.

  • Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962), animated television special.

  • A Christmas Carol (1964 to present), Glendale Theatre Centre, California. This is the longest running adaptation in theatre history.

  • A Christmas Carol (1971), film. In 1972, it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

  • A Christmas Carol (1978) Marvel Classics Comics #36.

  • Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983), animated film. It features various Disney characters as characters from the original text, including Scrooge McDuck as Ebenezer Scrooge and Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit.

  • A Christmas Carol (1988), Sir Patrick Stewart's one-man theatre adaptation.

  •  The Passion of Scrooge (or A Christmas Carol) (1998), Opera

  • The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), film. It features Michael Caine as Scrooge, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit, and Gonzo as Charles Dickens.

  •  A Christmas Carol: The Musical (1994), a Broadway musical adaptation with music by Alan Menken (ran at The Theatre at Madison Square Garden, New York City)

  • Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (2010), television.

  • Thomas & FriendsDiesel's Ghostly Christmas (2016), an adaptation within the TV show Thomas the Tank Engine

Clearly, A Christmas Carol lives on in innumerable ways, from film to opera to graphic novel. So who really was Charles Dickens, besides the man behind the cultural phenomenon that is A Christmas Carol? This Sunday’s lecture on Charles Dickens will seek to answer this query. Local radio personality and friend to Dalnavert Ron Robinson will be leading a discussion on the author’s fascinating life, unpacking questions like “why did he perform until it killed him? Why did he send his wife packing and announce it in the newspapers? Why did his family not know of his poverty and shame as a child until after he was dead?” All will be revealed at our afternoon lecture, given and performed by veteran broadcaster, bookseller and great fan of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Ron Robinson.

Walt Disney

Walt Disney

Sir Patrick Stewart’s one-man theatre adaptation (playbill.com)

Sir Patrick Stewart’s one-man theatre adaptation (playbill.com)

Victorian Ghosts for Christmas

Why Ghost Stories at Christmas?

by Arlene Young

 December 2nd, 1:30pm

$15 | $12 Members

reserve@dalnavertmuseum.ca | Event page

The three spirits that visited Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ famous story are not the only Christmas ghosts of the Victorian period. Victorians gathered to tell stories of the supernatural as part of their Christmas traditions. What fostered the Victorian fascination with ghosts and with exchanging ghost stories around the Christmas tree?

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The ghosts of this presentation are not all disembodied Christmas spirits, but include memories, customs, and traces of the past—our personal pasts, our cultural pasts, and our historical pasts, all of which fuse to form the traditions that mean Christmas to each of us. Where do all our holiday customs come from? What is the special contribution of Victorian traditions to the way we celebrate and think about Christmas and the Christmas spirit? How did Charles Dickens celebrate Christmas? How did the highly intellectual George Eliot celebrate? And what about cranky Jane and Thomas Carlyle? Join us to explore answers to some and perhaps all of these questions.

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Mad Scientists - October 28th, 1:30pm

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at 200

and the Immortal Undead Legacy of Mad Science

by Dr. Kathryn Ready

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From award-winning film and literature to news headlines, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and breakfast cereal, the mad scientist and mad science are everywhere. While Mary Shelley is generally credited with the invention of this popular character type, the subtitle of her famous novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) gestures immediately to ancient sources of inspiration. Behind the tragic tale of Victor Frankenstein and his monster are in fact many old and familiar stories beyond that of the legendary Titan who stole fire from heaven on behalf of humanity. We find the stories of Satan, Adam, and Eve. Of powerful magicians such as Merlin and Prospero. Of notorious alchemists such as Faust, who reportedly traded his soul away to Mephistopheles in exchange for power and forbidden knowledge. The recognition of these ancient sources of inspiration has helped to fuel ongoing debate concerning the cultural significance of Victor Frankenstein and his many descendants. Is the story of mad science about anything new? Or is its appeal as a modernized retelling of old, familiar stories? As a modern rewriting of ancient warnings against human curiosity and pride? Or did the story of the mad scientist capture the imagination in speaking to the impact of modern science? To a world being newly transformed by science and technology? If so, does the story of mad science offer more than a broad and straightforward warning against the dangers of science? How much did Shelley know about science? What might she be saying about scientific debates in her own day? About the culture of science? What about her own literary descendants?

This lecture is part of our Exploring Victorians series. Admission is $15 or $12 for members. Reserve your spot at reserve@dalnavertmuseum.ca or call 204-943-2835

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