‘Any fool can make soap,’ said Thomas James Barratt. ‘It takes a clever man to sell it.’ And he was just such a clever man, making Pears’ soap possibly the most famous brand of the nineteenth century.
He was born in St Pancras in 1841, the son of a piano-maker and his wife. He seems to have decided on his career early in life, supposedly carving ‘Tom Barratt – merchant’ into a tree on Hampstead Heath while still a boy.
He left his private school aged fifteen and had two other jobs before, in 1864, he became a bookkeeper in the Great Russell Street shop of the soap-makers A. & F. Pears. He soon became a commercial traveller for the company and then rose quickly, helped by his marriage in 1865 to Francis Pears’ eldest daughter, Mary. In that same year he became a partner in the firm, along with Francis’s nineteen-year-old son, Andrew.
At that time – and until well into the twentieth century – toilet soap was used only by the well-off; other people made do with household soap, if anything. But increased population and trade had increased the potential market for the better-quality product. Bathrooms were making their appearance in new middle-class houses – previously their owners would have washed in their bedrooms or dressing rooms with water brought up from the kitchen by servants – and more regular bathing followed. Cassell’s Household Guide commented that
The virtues of the use of soap and water have been more appreciated of late. It is impossible to define the amount of good which results from habits of cleanliness … The use of soap is the most sure way of purifying the surface of the body … But there are good and bad soaps … [H]aving obtained a nice mild soap, it should be used to the face once a day, the heads of children twice a week, and the whole body once a week at least. This is in addition to taking the daily cold water bath to be by-and-by noticed. If persons can afford the time and have the inclination, there can be no question that the best possible results follow the use of soap to the arm-pits, the groin and parts about, and the feet, each day, and to those who luxuriate in the thing, it cannot hurt to employ good soap to the body generally each day. We have, however, stated that at least once a week the whole body should be soaped. Ordinary yellow soap does not meet with any favour at our hands, and we condemn it in the case of young children.
Barratt was keen to tap into this growing market. If people could be persuaded to ask for Pears’ soap in the shops, he argued, the shops would stock it. But the means he proposed to get people asking for the product – advertising to consumers – was quite controversial.
At that time many business people regarded advertising with distaste as being the preserve of showmen, pedlars of patent medicines and the like. For a reputable firm to do more than make a bald announcement of the existence of its wares was tantamount to admitting that those wares were failing to sell themselves. Advertising could also bring unwelcome attention to business-owners’ engagement in trade at a time when this was still looked down on in some quarters.
Francis Pears seems to have been sufficiently dubious about Barratt’s ideas to retire from the firm in 1875, leaving his son Andrew to manage the soapworks, at Isleworth in west London, while Barratt looked after marketing.
Barratt approached his job with originality and flair. If newspapers did not allow illustrated advertising he would spell out PEARS across several columns by building up the letters from repetitions of the name in minute type. As French ten-centime coins were accepted as pennies in Britain, he imported a quarter of a million of them, stamped them with ‘Pears’, and put them into circulation at fourteen to the shilling, until the Government bought them up, melted them down, and legislated to prevent a repetition of the stunt.
He also pioneered the use of testimonial advertising. His most celebrated instance of this was inducing the actress Lillie Langtry – a noted society beauty and sometime mistress of the Prince of Wales – to declare in 1882 that ‘Since using Pears’ Soap I have discarded all others.’
This led Punch to publish a parody by Harry Furniss:
Unabashed, Barratt bought the rights to the cartoon and reproduced it until became even more famous than Langtry’s endorsement and the caption eventually entered the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, along with ‘Good-morning! Have you used Pears’ Soap?’
To boost Pears’ American sales, Barratt gatecrashed a reception at the house of Dr Henry Ward Beecher, Congregationalist clergyman and social reformer (brother of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), who has been described as ‘the most famous man in America’ in his day. Having waited until everyone else had left, Barratt eventually persuaded Beecher to endorse Pears’ soap and bought the entire front page of the New York Herald to publicise the fact. Pears became one of the two most used toilet soaps in the USA.
Barratt also attracted attention to Pears’ advertisements by commissioning or reproducing art involving nudity at the limit of what was then conventionally acceptable – aimed primarily at men with the power of money.
In 1877 Barratt moved into a house, Bell Moor (now replaced by a block of flats bearing a plaque commemorating his residency), on the edge of Hampstead Heath, in East Heath Road, and at around this time he began to collect works of art. His collection eventually included Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen and John Gibson’s controversial attempt to revive the Greek practice of colouring sculpture, known as The Tinted Venus, as well as works by John Constable, Sir Thomas Lawrence, members of the Norwich School, and others.
In 1892 he introduced Pears’ Christmas Annual, which sold for a shilling and included between two and four good-quality colour prints of paintings selected or commissioned by Barratt – the Pears’ Pictures for People scheme. The annual, which appeared for 38 years, usually sold out in a fortnight, and over 100 prints were issued.
The most famous of these was a picture by Sir John Everett Millais of his five-year-old grandson, William Milbourne James:
Originally entitled A Child’s World, the painting – and its copyright – had been bought by Sir William Ingram, who reproduced it in his Illustrated London News, where it was seen by Barratt. Barratt paid Ingram £2,200 for the picture and had it reproduced with the addition of a bar of soap and a caption for use as a poster:
Barratt took the result to Millais’ home one morning to show him. The painter was initially furious, but realising he could do nothing – for, as he later pointed out to the novelist Marie Corelli when she accused him of degrading himself to sell soap, Barratt had bought the copyright too – he eventually calmed down and took an interest in the skill of the reproduction methods used. The painting, a print of which was given way with the 1897 Christmas annual, thereafter became known as ‘Bubbles’ – as did its sitter, even when he later became Admiral Sir William Milbourne James GCB.
Other promotions included the publication from 1897 of the Pears Cyclopaedia, a annual reference book which is still published, though no longer connected to Pears or its successor companies.
As well as collecting art, Barratt was a keen fly-fisherman and botanist and a fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society. He also wrote a three-volume history of Hampstead, and started a programme to buy open lands for preservation against development. He admired Nelson so much that he gave a dinner in his honour each year, and left a collection of Nelson memorabilia – including a log from HMS Victory for which he had paid £4,000 – to the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich.
Barratt had separated from his wife at some point and lived with a doctor’s daughter, Florence Bell, who called herself Mrs Barratt and had two sons by him. He died after a short illness in Margate on 26 April 1914, and was buried in St Pancras Cemetery on 30 April. His estate was valued at £405,564 16s. 6d – equivalent to nearly £42 million today.
The writer of a posthumous profile in the American National Magazine remembered him as ‘a tall, sturdy, energetic gentle man with a long white beard, bright blue eyes and a jovial manner’, whose ‘observations on different points of interest as we passed, his keen comments on the people in the streets of London which Dickens so vividly described, were like rereading the tales of Pickwick, while his estimate of the statesmen and legislators in the United States and Europe revealed a wide horizon of liberal observation’.
The techniques that Barratt had pioneered had made Pears’ soap one of the most recognised products of the late nineteenth century. Pears’ annual advertising expenditure had never been more than £80 before he joined the company, but was over £100,00 at the time of his death. The Isleworth factory had been repeatedly expanded to meet demand, especially in the 1880s, and in 1892 the firm had become a public company, with £810,000 in assets and Barratt as its chairman and managing director – as well as continuing to buy its advertising space, which he greatly enjoyed. It paid a dividend of 10 per cent every year until his death. The press baron Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, who in 1896 founded the Daily Mail, which at the time of his death in 1922 held the world record for daily newspaper circulation, described Barratt as ‘the Father of Modern Advertising from whom I have learned so much’.
• ‘The Allure of Pears Soap’ at collectables.com
• ‘Plaque: Bell Moor House & T.J. Barratt’ at London Memorials website
• ‘Bubbles (painting)’ at Wikipedia
• Cassell’s Household Guide (London: Cassell, 1869– )
• W. A. Evans, Advertising Today and Tomorrow (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974; reprinted Abingdon: Routledge, 2013)
• Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (London: HarperCollins, 2003)
• Graham Kelley, ‘Barratt, Thomas James (1841–1914)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
• Mitchell Mannering, ‘The “Father” of Modern Advertising’, National Magazine: An Illustrated American Monthly, Vol. 41 (October 1914–March 1915), pp. 689ff., reproduced in Zachary Petit, ‘The Father of Modern Advertising Rides Again’
• Terry Nevett, ‘Barratt, Thomas James (1841–1914)’, in David J. Jeremy (ed.), Dictionary of Business Biography, Vol. 1: A–C (London: Butterworths, 1984)
• Andrzej Piotrowski, Architecture of Thought (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011)
• The Times, 27 April 194 (‘Death of Mr. T. J. Barratt’), 1 May 1914 (‘Nelson Relics for the Nation’)
• C. H. Ward-Jackson, ‘The Great Persuader’, Blackwood’s Magazine, 317 (1975), pp. 204–19