Oh the things you will learn in the Proctor and Gamble Archives. Did you know that Ivory soap originally came with a string around it, to make it easy to split in half as a dual-purpose product for kitchen and bath? That Vick’s VapoRub began as the catchy “Vick’s Croup and Pneumonia Salve”? Or that Max Factor, part of whose collection P&G acquired when they bought the cosmetician-to-the-stars’ eponymous brand, invented a kissing machine for testing lipstick? P&G’s kissing machine is broken, but a working version turned up on the cover of a Red Hot Chili Peppers album. According to Lisa Mulvany, Beauty Archivist and P&G archives tour-guide extraordinaire, Factor determined the pressure of the ideal kiss to be 10lbs, which seems high for someone sporting a mustache. The other librarians on my tour, organized by the Special Libraries Association, all women, seemed to agree.
The Procter and Gamble archives preserve and display objects representative of the health and beauty behemoth’s history of invention, marketing, and branding genius, from those first humble bars to such iconic products as Tide, Febreze, Dreft and Dawn. Everywhere you look, bold new words for products that promise, and sometimes do, change lives.
The second thing you notice when you walk in, after a stunned, Julie Andrews-esque 360 to take in the brilliant displays of colors so bright they might have been alchemically conjured by P&G’s R&D wizards, is the well put-together nature of the place. Artifacts are associated by brand, and their arrangement tells stories. As you pass from one room to the next, charts map the evolution of P&G’s brand portfolio, as well as their products, offshoots, and acquisitions.
This is more than a museum. It’s an in-house resource, because, Lisa says, great new ideas are usually great old ideas rediscovered. P&G’s smart set draws inspiration from this collection and from company history. From an archival standpoint, for a collection that serves this purpose, the connections between the objects—their evolution, cross-pollination and origins carry as much information as the objects themselves. Each connection is a story contributing to a larger story, one that plays out in the bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, and shopping carts of millions of consumers word wide. That the archives are a vital part of P&G’s collective, creative thought process is evidenced by the location of an “Ideation and Brainstorm Space” on the premises. Two display rooms provide a panorama of P&G’s products, origins, and history. A surprising number of items have been bought on eBay.
From the beginning, P&G’s expertise lay in rendering fats for various products. Before Ivory, they sold soap and candles to the Union Army. And where they lacked expertise, they have been smart enough to know where to get it. In many cases the company bought operations not only for rights, but for the knowledge that came with the purchase–their move into the cosmetics market, for example, which is how a lock of Elizabeth Taylor’s hair, and samples of other stars’ coiffure, for whom Max Factor made wigs, ended up in the archive. Along the way, Procter and Gamble has gotten good at many other things, including understanding and influencing the psychology behind why and what we buy. Case in point, the company’s seminal role in the creation and production of what became known, because of its involvement, as soap operas. They even won this Emmy.
More recently, they’ve mastered the art of creating new needs before we even know we need them—no small feat, as Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, notes here. Who knew we needed canned potato chips that came perfectly stacked? P&G did. Thank you, P&G.
And while the P&G archives might offer insight into the power that brands and images exert over us, they also demonstrate, with all of those intricate logos and smiling faces (for example these creepy babies that were probably once considered adorable, unless they were trying to scare prospective customers into buying, in which case, SOLD!), just how much a part of us they have become.
The P&G archives are usually only open to P&G employees, partners, and stakeholders. Any Cincinnati history buff should figure out how to become one of these, to gain access to this trove covering a 176-year corporate history that has profoundly shaped our nation and city. -Ed Scripsi