A Condensed History of Sweat

 In Sailing
roman_-_strigil_-_walters_541926

Bronze strigil (Roman, 1st century AD, Walters Art Museum)

Rule #1 of marketing – know your product!

We keep cool by sweating, something that we do more effectively than most mammals. There is a compelling case that around the same time as we became bipedal, well over 1 million years ago, the number of sweat glands on our bodies increased and we lost a lot of our hair. (This is perhaps best explained in a brilliant book by Nina Jablonski, professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, called SKIN: A Natural History.) This development gave us a tremendous advantage over the animals we hunted. It enabled us to regulate our temperature and keep going through the midday sun, while our prey had to stop to cool down. The early form of hunting that developed from this evolutionary advantage was called the Persistence Hunt. With this ability, combined with evolution of the anatomy of our hands that enabled us to grip and make tools, early humans were more free than any other animal to roam and explore, enabling us to populate the world.

Fast forward a few hundred thousand years to the gladiators of Rome. Although soap was already in use in northern Europe, made from animal fat, the Romans preferred way of cleaning themselves was with oil and a tool called the strigil. Oil would be massaged into the skin then the blade of the strigil was scraped along the skin. The strigil was cupped so the oil and sweat would be collected. Normally this would have been poured away. However there is evidence that it was also bottled, especially from famous gladiators, and the sale of this was quite a large industry. The sweat was collected by slaves and sold in bottles outside the arena. Its recorded to have been used as a beauty treatment and also as an aphrodisiac.

In around 1787 Andrew Pears moved from Mavagissey in Cornwall and started his barbour shop in Soho, London. He soon started developing beauty products and created Pears soap. This was gentler than other cosmetics used at the time – many of which often contained arsnic or lead – and he also gave his soap a floral scent. This soap proved incredibly popular, first in the UK then also in the United States.

Andrew’s grandson, Francis, took over the business in 1835. The name was changed to A & F Pears and the company won the Prize Medal for Soap at the Great Exhibition in 1851. In 1862 production was moved to Isleworth in West London. It was soon after this that Thomas J. Barratt was appointed bookeeper.

Barratt was also an illustrator. I grew up with a number of Barratt prints hanging on the walls at home. All are pretty mawkish but they are one of the few links we have to this part of the family – Andrew Pears was my, great, great, great uncle on my Grandmother’s side. Barratt married Francis’s daughter Mary. He soon started developing an advertising campaign for Pears Soap. He was keen to associate the brand with high culture. He started the publication of the Pears Cyclopedia, a single volume Encyclopedia. He acquired works of art to use in the advertisements, most famously John Everett Millais’ painting Bubbles. He added a bar of Pears soap to the foreground and used them as billboards across the country. Something Millais wasn’t very happy about – especially as he was accused of selling out by fellow artists.

pears-dog-and-child-coasterAnother of Barratt’s ploys was to import half a million French centimes, imprint them with Pears’ name and introduce them into circulation. The scheme caused huge publicity and led to an act of Parliament to protect British currency. Like all good ad men he seems to be full of inconsistencies and would exploit anything if he thought it would increase sales. He would also link Pears’ to British imperial culture, associating the cleansing power of the soap with the imagery of worldwide commerce and the empire’s civilising mission.

Barratt’s has been called the father of modern advertising. He was certainly an innovator. Hopefully cycling in a glass box for 1000 hours and collecting the substance he built his reputation on subduing will be interpreted as penance, rather than celebration, of his legacy.

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