Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects: The liquid soap dispenser

Minnetonka launched a product called The Incredible Soap Machine in the late 1970s because bars of soap were "messy and unsightly in the bathroom"

Rhodri Marsden
Friday 21 August 2015 16:56
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It was 150 years ago today that Mr William Sheppard received the US patent for liquid soap. By mixing one part common soap to 100 parts ammonia, he created a glutenous substance which, he predicted, would be "valuable for domestic purposes". But he was wrong. While public facilities would utilise the stuff extensively, consumers perceived it as "unnatural" compared with their much-loved bar soap with names like Cashmere Bouquet, or Caress.

That changed in the late 1970s. Robert R Taylor, head of US consumer goods company Minnetonka, decided that bars of soap were "messy and unsightly in the bathroom". He launched a product called The Incredible Soap Machine, a liquid soap dispenser billed as "the newest idea since the soap dish". Sold via mail order and in gift stores, it became the company's biggest-selling item, and by 1980 Taylor saw a golden opportunity to launch a new product, Softsoap, in supermarkets.

The only problem was competition from huge companies such as Unilever and Proctor & Gamble. A few years earlier, Taylor had watched as his fruit-themed shampoos had been quickly outsold by a competing product from Clairol – and he wasn't going to let it happen again.

He contacted Calmar, the only manufacturer of plastic hand pumps in the US, and spent $12m (far more than Minnetonka was worth) on its entire production of pumps for the next year – some 100m units. Throughout 1980 the American public decided that they now loved the idea of liquid soap – and Taylor held an effective monopoly. He coined it.

"The best way for an entrepreneur to compete in today's marketplace," Taylor told The New York Times, "is to avoid competition – or at least find ways to circumvent it." In 2013, Inc. magazine described Taylor's $12m plastic pump gamble as one of the three shrewdest business moves ever made.

@rhodri

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