The rise of the White King

Judith Williamson considers the dark history of brand packaging

It is almost impossible to disentangle the imagery of early soap powder packaging, with its fetishisation of hygiene and, in particular, "whiteness", from the colonial exploitation which that ideology of "purity" so transparently served. And yet the relation between the imperial economy and the fantasy of cleanliness is less straightforward than might at first appear. The development of high-turnover domestic goods became important to western economies at precisely the point when the prosperity generated by imperialism in its heyday had peaked: the late 19th century saw a burgeoning of soap products, for the first time packaged for a mass market, alongside an increasing destabilisation of the colonial frameworks which had held in place a captive market and, for Britain at least, created the mid-19th-century boom on which a sense of natural power and superiority had rested with almost careless ease. By the time of the depression of 1873, competition within and between the main western economies had overtaken colonial development as the key dynamic of capitalist growth, and for the first time the western working classes became necessary for that growth, not merely as cheap labour, but as consumers.

In other words, the relatively sudden explosion of soap products in the 1880s and 1890s was linked to the imperialist economy rather as a way to make good its deficits than as its glorious apotheosis. The particular insistence on racist imagery at this time suggests an anxiety, at once political and social, arising from the failure of both empire and nation to remain stable enough to guarantee the continuance of existing power structures. Ideologically, the soap-driven focus on personal and domestic hygiene as a mark of racial superiority can be seen as a compensatory device within marketing aimed squarely at the domestic "great unwashed" - now conveniently offered a chance to reinvent themselves as the "washed", in contrast to the inherently dirty figure of the colonised black. There is a strikingly evangelical tone to late 19th-century British soap advertisements and packaging: a typical image would be black children gratefully receiving bars of soap from their white benefactors. The mass audience for this kind of imagery, living in conditions of appalling hardship and often squalor, are addressed not as being in need of cleaning up themselves, but as potential agents of cleanliness for others - allowed marginally to share in the improving ethos projected on to them by the prolific do-gooders of the time.

North American soap packets from this period suggest a completely different relation between the newly important white working-class consumer and the figure of the black. The history of slavery - and the first two packets discussed here emerged roughly a generation after the American civil war - underpins the way that blacks feature not as objects of "improvement", but as an apparently natural source of labour. These products were manufactured in the northern states and were not aimed at a class with a slave-owning past (or a servant-employing present): what their images have in common with the more missionary-toned contemporary British images is that they refer backwards - in each case, to a relatively recent past in which the power relations that bound black slave or colonial subject into the economic and social structure were more stable.

"Gold Dust", which dates from the 1880s, proposes that you "let the twins do your work", as two black children - caricatured in a classic "piccaninny" stereotype - are shown scrubbing and polishing: little domestic lackeys in bizarre, minstrel-like tutus. However, the anchoring image on this packet is the heap of gold coins, which connotes less the cost of the labour (capitalist economy) than the cost of the children themselves (slave economy). No attempt is made to contrast black with white: it is the suggestion of personal slave ownership combined with the twins' willingness and zeal in performing a multitude of tasks that seems to be the selling point.

"Fun-to-wash" presents an even more bizarre image, this time the black "mama" stereotype, picturing, again, not the white consumer, or even white clothes, contrasted with blackness, but a figure one must assume is the washerwoman who, in her homely, toothy simplicity, will find it fun to wash with the powder and who is herself rather gruesomely presented as a figure of fun.

The "Gold Dust" packet design remained virtually unchanged until the 1930s, when it went out of production. Interestingly, it was also during this decade that "White King" appeared. The backdrop to these changes was the Great Depression, which, by the early Thirties, must have turned the implications of Gold Dust's heap of coins from a pleasantly fantastic abundance into a grim mockery of an economic situation where labour appeared almost valueless and millions could not spare a dime.

"White King" makes no reference to blackness either as a concept or an image, and yet it is haunted by both. The phrase "white king" itself, disarmingly illustrated by a playing-card king, is impossible to disassociate from ideas of white supremacy and conjures up a Ku Klux Klan image reinforced, at least subliminally, by the white sheet the blissful housewife holds up to her face to feel the softness. Not only is the washing purged of dirt, the image itself is bleached so white that the woman's face and hair, even her earrings, are as white as the sheet draped around her. Blackness is drained from the image, and yet cannot but be evoked by the very insistence on its opposite. Seen in this light, the little king figure, with his elaborate regalia and unsheathed sword, is not so innocent an image after all, evoking for a white audience a fantasy perhaps all the more powerful for being cut loose from any direct social reference. Packaging has now entered the more abstractly semiotic realms of suggestion, symbolism and ellipsis - Mrs Fun-to-wash has disappeared from the public realm, and it was to be another two decades before Rosa Parks refused to budge from her seat on the bus.

Packaging and advertising images are perhaps the most purposeful that exist. Their function is not overtly ideological but economic. Yet it is precisely because of this that they reveal so much about the societies through which they weave the aspirations of day-to-day life. Manufacturer and market must connect through such images, which, if we investigate them in context, tell us a great deal about both. But what the images here tell us about their vehicle of representation - black people themselves - is nothing at all.

Judith Williamson is the author of Decoding Advertisements, Consuming Passions and Deadline at Dawn

"Dirty Washing: the hidden language of soap powder packaging" is at the Design Museum, 28 Shad Thames, Butler's Wharf, London SE1, until 2 September. Call 020 7403 6933 or visit www.designmuseum.org

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The diva of Downing Street