One of the most iconic consumer brands of the Gilded Age was Santa Claus Soap. Made by the N.K. Fairbank Company of Chicago, Santa Claus Soap became as well known for its illustrated ads as for its cleaning ability.
Santa Claus Soap, used for laundry and general household cleaning, was the brainchild of Nathaniel Kellogg Fairbank, who came to Chicago from New York and established a lard-processing and soap-making company in 1864. Chicago was the perfect venue for such a company, being home to a massive meat-packing industry.
In 1875, the company was purchased by The American Cotton Oil Company and renamed N.K. Fairbank & Co. By 1880, the company had 400 employees and $5 million in annual sales. Fairbank made other products, such as Cottolene lard substitute, Fairy Soap, Fairbanks Scouring Soap and Gold Dust washing powder.
The popular Santa Claus Soap ads ran in hundreds of daily newspapers and magazines across America. Featuring distinctive illustrations and (usually) clever headlines and copy, the ads made Santa Claus Soap an instantly recognizable brand.
Fairbank became a wealthy industrialist in Chicago, although he maintained a home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. By the time he retired in 1891, N.K. Fairbank & Co. had regional sales offices in St. Louis, Omaha and Montreal. Within a few years the company employed more than 1,000 people at its 19th Street plant in Chicago.
The soap was marketed as being twice as effective as other soaps, at half the price. Ads called to “thoughtful, thrify women” whose brand loyalty was won by practical day-to-day tests in the home. One ad used the old saying “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” adding that Santa Claus Soap was like “white wings of purity” that “spread their radiance around us.”
Fairbank died in 1903, although his company and its products continued on for decades. By the early 1920s, American Cotton Oil moved N.K. Fairbank out of Chicago to more modern plants in the South.
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