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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,025

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This is the grave of William Procter.

Born in 1801 in Hereforeshire, England, Procter was a well-educated guy of the British upper middle classes, industrial version versus landed version. He went to good schools and started in business in 1818. He worked mostly in the clothing business in London. By the late 1820s, quite a few British businessmen were moving to the U.S. because there were so many great economic opportunities there. Some of Procter’s friends did this and they wrote back to him of the money they were making. So Procter joined them in 1830. He moved to New York and went into the candle business.

In 1832, Procter decided to move to Cincinnati. On the way out there, his wife died. This was the first year of the great cholera epidemics and I am not speculating that she died of cholera, but it’s worth noting. He didn’t really assume he would spend the rest of his life in Porkopolis, but he did. He remarried fairly soon and then went into business with his new brother-in-law, James Gamble. They started making soap (Gamble’s baby), candles, and other similar products. During the Civil War, they hit the big time. See, this was a moment when the big corporations that would come to dominate the Gilded Age were already starting to push their tentacles through the economy. But it was the Civil War and the North’s great skill and infrastructure for logistics that provided the real opportunity for capitalists who could deliver to make serious money. This is where John D. Rockefeller started getting big, for instance. Well, soap and candles are two things that the Union Army needed. Candles obviously for light and soap for the vague and pretty not successful attempts to keep anything clean and sanitary. So, boom, here comes Procter and Gamble as a major company. They became major military suppliers and then were able to take advantage of that to become serious domestic suppliers throughout the country in the years after the war. Part of this what the beginning of brand names. Because Procter and Gamble was now supplying people from around the country instead of just in the greater Cincinnati area, their high-quality products became known by soldiers from Maine to Minnesota. So if they could see a Procter and Gamble product at home, they would buy it, whether for quality or nostalgia. In other words, this is how a lot of monopoly capitalism began. Local brands got outpaced by these national companies. Quite soon, this would replace pork as the central economic engine of Cincinnati.

About the working conditions in a soap and candles factory in the late nineteenth century, I shudder. To my knowledge, labor historians have not explored this industry’s working conditions in much detail, but there could be one of those labor histories from the 80s that go into tremendous detail about it that I haven’t read. But anything that contains animal fats, as at least some of these products surely did, must have been horrifying beyond belief. But that was par for the course in the factories of this era. What I do know is that there were enough strikes that in 1887, the company started a profit-sharing program to incentivize not striking. This was after Procter’s death, but one can only imagine this came after decades of labor problems.

In 1879, while Procter was not really running the show anymore, but was still pretty involved, the company introduced Ivory soap, one of the iconic brands of soap in American history. And the rest is the history of a gigantic corporation that would grow and grow and grow, long after Procter died. That was in 1884, when he was 82 years old.

William Procter is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you would like this series to visit other people involved in the history of American soap, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Like many people with questionable skin issues, I find Ivory basically unusable. Vincent Lamberti, who created the vastly superior Dove soap, is in Paterson, New Jersey and William Gump, who invented the modern compound for sanitary soap in World War II, which would soon be used to create Dial, is in Montclair, New Jersey. And now we can all talk about soap for the rest of the day. In fact, I know you all want to this series to become all soap all the time, so let’s send me to New Jersey! Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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