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Palmolive Soap and Kleopatra: An American Expression of Egyptomania and Consumerism, by Tara Sewell-Lasater

Palmolive Soap and Kleopatra: An American Expression of Egyptomania and Consumerism, by Tara Sewell-Lasater

You may be wondering, what exactly is Egyptomania? Simply put, Egyptomania is the mania (as implied by the term itself) for all things ancient Egypt-related. This has expressed itself in artistic creations, literary productions, museum exhibits, and beyond over the last several centuries, from the Renaissance and into our modern times.

In American and European culture, Egyptomania also expressed itself via consumerism, where mass produced goods, themed with Egyptian motifs, were marketed to the average person, allowing them to bring some of the exoticism and luxury associated with ancient Egypt into their wardrobes (via clothes and jewelry), homes (via furniture and décor), and everyday routines (with items like makeup, soaps, and perfumes).

In relation to consumerism, we see two main waves of Egyptomania. The first occurred after Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt (1798), which resulted in the famous monograph Description de l’Egypte (1809-1829) and the subsequent deciphering of hieroglyphics. The second wave, known as Tutmania, began in 1922 with the discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb. People who did not have the money to travel to Egypt themselves could read about it in books, see it reproduced in artworks, and visualize it in stage productions, like Verdi’s Aida (1871), and later films.

This prevalence of Egypt in the media resulted in a desire to bring some of the mystique and opulence of Egypt into peoples’ homes. Manufacturers were only too happy to make that possible, producing a wide variety of goods for mass consumption, which were decorated with easily recognizable Egyptian motifs, like pyramids, hieroglyphs, and, of course, the most well-known Egyptian queen, Kleopatra VII.[1] By the late 1800s and early 1900s, thanks in part to the waves of Egyptomania, Kleopatra had become one of the most recognizable figures in the media. Even when her name was not mentioned, she could be identified by her statuesque, and often sensual, posing, her elaborate Egyptian-style clothing, which was often heavily decorated and bejeweled, her distinct hairstyle (either a black bob or longer black coif), and cat-eye makeup. As a result, she became a regular figure in advertising for these Egyptomania products. And, since a treatise on cosmetics is often attributed to Kleopatra VII[2], associating her with beauty products was an easy connection to make.

Fig. 1: 1917 Palmolive ad featured in the Ladies’ Home Journal (Image from HathiTrust, The Ladis’ Home Journal Archive, Link here) / Fig. 2: 1920 Palmolive ad featured in Harper’s Bazaar (Image from Vintage Ad Art Collection on MadMenArt.com, Link here)

The advertisements issued by Palmolive during the early 1900s are notable examples of this trend. In these ads, the company sought to use the image of Kleopatra, along with her reputation for beauty, luxury, and exoticism, to sell their shampoos and soaps. For instance, in one of the advertisements issued by Palmolive in 1917 (Fig. 1), we see a Kleopatra figure reclining on a couch. She wears a queenly vulture headdress (whisps of her black bob show under it), a bejeweled collar, bikini top, belt, and sandals. She is attended by servants who fan her and prepare her unguents. The text on the advertisement relates “Cleopatra’s Vision” in which her use of palm and olive oils could be transformed into the “greatest of all toilet luxuries…the fragrant, creamy cake of Palmolive soap.” The advertisement ran in the Ladies’ Home Journal and is a clear effort to encourage housewives to buy the soap so they can feel like a queen.

Another example from 1920, which ran in Harper’s Bazaar (Fig. 2), presents an art deco Kleopatra, again with a black bob, vulture headdress, bejeweled collar, and white linen dress, sitting on a throne, and pouring what one assumes is either olive or palm oil. The accompanying text reads: “How did Cleopatra wash her face…Hieroglyphic records prove that while the finish of the royal toilet may have been rouging with carmine or vermilion, thorough, radiant cleanliness was always the foundation…Wash your face with the same bland, beneficial cleansers the beauty-loving queen employed…” Here again, the goal is to encourage the average housewife to buy Palmolive soap by indicating they can achieve the same beauty as the famous Egyptian queen.

Fig. 3: 1942 Palmolive ad featured in This Week magazine (Image from Duke University Repository, Link here) / Fig. 4: Cleopatra Soap ad from 1960s (Image from ebay, Link here)

By 1942, we can see the imagery and wording has been updated to fit the new decade, but the idea is still the same: using Kleopatra’s beauty methods will allow the modern woman to achieve a similar, queenly appeal. This ad (Fig. 3) depicts several images of a woman (who by the beauty standards of the 1940 is very attractive and well-coifed), along with an image of a famous painting of Kleopatra by Alexandre Cabanel (1887). The accompanying text states: “With her dark, disturbing loveliness, Cleopatra conquered the man who conquered the world. Her beauty secret? – The oldest and best ever known! Legend tells us that, daily, Cleopatra’s handmaidens bathed and massaged her from tip to toe with gentle Olive and Palm Oils. The result was beauty no man could resist!” Here, direct reference is made to the famed seductive powers of Kleopatra as a way to indicate that women who emulate her beauty regimen can also acquire a similar allure.

And, this is just a small selection of the ads that were produced from the early 1900s to the mid-1940s. A quick google search can demonstrate that Palmolive (which after 1928 was merged with the Colgate company) continued to borrow on the Egyptomania trend and the imagery and beauty of the famous queen throughout the early to mid-1900s and well into the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. For instance, in the 1960s, Palmolive-Colgate produced a “Cleopatra” soap, which encourage women to lose themselves “in the subtle, sultry mysteries of five fragrant oils…inspired by the real Cleopatra’s own beauty ritual” (Fig. 4). By the 1980s television commercials were being aired to advertise the soap as well (see this example on YouTube).

Fig. 5: Revlon “Cleopatra Look” ad from 1962 (Image from reddit.com, Link here) / Fig. 6: Maidenform “I Dreamed I Played Cleopatra” ad from 1952 (Image from ebay, Link here)

Further, this concept of using Kleopatra’s image to sell beauty products was adopted by several other beauty companies, as seen in the Revlon ad from 1962 (Fig. 5), and the Maidenform ad from 1952 (Fig. 6). Kleopatra as a representation of beauty and beauty products has even entered into other popular culture media types, such as movies. For instance, in a scene in the recent movie Astérix et Obélix: L’Empire du Milieu (2023) (see above) Kleopatra is shown in an advertisement for Chinese skin soap “Les savons de Cleo”, which is reminiscent of the earlier Palmolive ads, indicating how the ads themselves are now a part of our popular culture memory.

This trend also demonstrates how, over time, knowledge of the real queen, Kleopatra VII, has been replaced — she has been transformed into this caricature of the ‘Popculture Cleopatra’. She presents an imagery: the beautiful, sultry queen, who is identifiable by her black bob, cat-eye, sultry air, and opulence. This image is easily recognizable to audiences and can thus be used to wordlessly identify the traits she is thought to be representative of. As a result, not only do we see this caricature used in movie, videogames, and costumes, but her image has been coopted to sell products to women by borrowing on the idea that modern women can take on the well-known qualities of Cleopatra: beauty, sensuality, exoticism.

Author: Tara Sewell-Lasater, Montana State University

Notes:

[1] Throughout this article, I use the spelling Kleopatra, rather than Cleopatra (except when directly quoting one of the advertisements). Cleopatra, spelled with a C, is the more widely used spelling, but it is taken from the Roman/latinized version of the queen’s name. Kleopatra, spelled with a K, is the Greek transliteration of her name (Κλεοπάτρα), which references the Greek roots of her name meaning “glory of her father.” I use the Greek spelling of her name to indicate when I am discussing the real, historical queen and reserve the c-spelling for referencing the pop culture caricature version of the queen.

[2] We now know the surviving fragments of the Cosmetics treatise were likely produced by a 1st c. CE writer, called Kleopatra the Physician.

 

Featured image: Marion Cotillard as Cléopâtre in Astérix et Obélix: L’Empire du milieu (2023) (Screeshot by the author)

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Abraham I. Fernández Pichel - Rogério Sousa - Eleanor Dobson - Filip Taterka - Guillermo Juberías Gracia - José das Candeias Sales
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