Out in the Wash: Laundry Products from the East Lansing Dump
For many of us today, laundry is a pretty simple affair: separate the lights from the darks, add detergent, and let the washing machine do its work. Before the advent of automatic washing machines and newfangled detergents with optical brighteners, laundry was more of an art form involving many complicated steps. Housekeeping books often contained lengthy descriptions of the best way to do laundry. Mrs. Christine Frederick’s Household Engineering book, published in 1920, contains a 55-page chapter on laundry alone. Mrs. Christine Frederick may have been able to tell us immediately the purpose of two whimsically labeled bottles recovered during excavations at Brody/Emmons Amphitheater: a small, round, clear glass bottled embossed with “Little Boy Blue Bluing” and a large, oval, clear glass bottle embossed with “Little Bo Peep Ammonia.” Since none of us here at Campus Archaeology are laundry experts, we needed to do a little research to figure out the purpose and product history of these objects.
The question of purpose is easy to answer. Ammonia has various uses as a household cleaner. When added to laundry ammonia can help whiten whites, soften fabrics, and remove an impressive array of stains due to grease, food, ink, grass, rust, and even blood, urine, and sweat (1). Bluing is a product that can be added to laundry to make whites look whiter and brighter. Whereas bleach whitens fabrics by removing color, bluing creates an optical illusion that makes fabrics look whiter. Since blue is opposite yellow on the color wheel, small amounts of blue dye help neutralize yellowness. Trace amounts of dye also leave a bluish cast that our eyes perceive as brilliant white (2).
Historically, various substances have been used for bluing. Early bluing was sold in solid form. Blocks of indigo, a plant dye, were placed inside muslin bags and shaken into the laundry water during rinsing (3). Another type of solid bluing used ultramarine, a pigment derived either synthetically or from ground lapis lazuli (3). Ultramarine was mixed with baking soda and rolled into balls. For this reason, it was sometimes called ball bluing (4). Today most bluing is sold in liquid form (2). Liquid bluing is often made with Prussian blue, a synthetic pigment made from the suspension of ferric ferrocyanide (colloidal iron) in organic acid (5).
Research into the product history of Little Boy Blue Bluing and Little Bo Peep Ammonia took a bit more digging. These products can be traced back to a Chicago company called the Condensed Bluing Company. John Puhl, president of Condensed Bluing, applied for trademarks for Little Boy Blue laundry bluing in 1914 (6,7) and Little Bo Beep Ammonia in 1922 (8). In 1924, historical records show trademarks for Little Boy Bluing and Little Bo Peep Ammonia given to the John Puhl Products Company (9).
Advertisements for these products ran in newspapers in Midwestern and Central States from the 1910’s to the 1940’s (10). The products were often advertised together and contained cheerful imagery of the fairy tale characters for which they were named. These names were likely meant to evoke the fleecy whiteness of sheep—both Bo Peep and Boy Blue were caretakers of sheep. One series of advertisements featured short stories about cartoon bears named Fuzzie and Wuzzie, illustrated by Chicago artist Milo Winter. These “fairy stories” described Fuzzie and Wuzzie doing things like playing store, gardening, and cleaning, and they always featured Little Boy Blue Bluing and Little Bo Peep Ammonia products prominently. The use of fairy tales as a motif in advertising was particularly common at the beginning of the 20th century (11). According to Zipes, allusions to well known fairy tales were supposed to remind readers of magic, happy endings, and wish fulfillment (11).
This advertising strategy sometimes even pulled John Puhl himself into the fairy tale. Some ads featured a photograph of Puhl surrounded on either side by cartoon Bo Beep and Boy Blue, labeled “Daddy Puhl and his kiddies.” This takes on a somewhat sinister tone considering Puhl’s own record. An 1894 Report of the Illinois Department of Factory Inspection reports John Puhl, then manager of Puhl & Webb baking powder factory at 157 East Kinzie Street, was charged with illegally employing 4 children without affidavits (12).
Ownership of Little Boy Blue Bluing and Little Bo Peep Ammonia changed hands at least two times after 1924. Sterling Drugs purchased John Puhl Products in 1949 (13). In 1958, Purex purchased the John Puhl Division of Sterling Drugs (14). Both Little Boy Blue Bluing and Little Bo Peep Ammonia continued to be sold under the Purex brand name after the purchase (14). Unfortunately, we do not have precise dates on our Little Boy Blue and Little Bo Peep bottles. However, styles of the bottles are consistent with products featured in advertisements from the 1930’s and early 1940’s. These dates are also consistent with those of other artifacts found in the Brody/Emmons assemblage. This would suggest that the bottles date prior to the purchase of John Puhl by Purex.
Many times when we are looking at artifacts in the CAP lab we come across brand names or products that were once ubiquitous but that we don’t often see today. It is always an interesting time researching these objects, learning how and why they were used, and trying to trace their origins. Sometimes, you even learn a little something about laundry along the way.
Author: Mari Isa
- Frederick, Christine. Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home. American School of Home Economics: Chicago, 1920.
- Wailes, Raymond B. Analyzing Everyday in the Home. Popular Science, December 1934, pp. 56-57.
- Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Volume 295. February 21, 1922.
- Practical Druggist and Pharmaceutical Review of Reviews, Volume 40. October, 1922.
- Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Volume 331. February 19, 1925.
- Printer’s Ink, Volume 120. August 31, 1922.
- The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, Second Edition. Jack Zipes, ed. Oxford University Press: New York, 2015.
- Record of Convictions. Second Annual Report of the Factory Inspectors of Illinois. 1894, p. 66.
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. November 30, 1949. Retrieved from https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/88841505/.
- Purex Corp., Ltd. V. Procter & Gamble Co. 419 F. Supp. 931 (1976). Retrieved from https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/419/931/1979114/.
Photos of bottles taken by Lisa
Advertising pamphlet featuring a Fuzzie Wuzzie Fairy Story and “Daddy Puhl and his kiddies”