Stories brought forth on the Fourth

Published 2:32 pm Monday, July 4, 2022

I hope everyone enjoyed a safe, healthy July 4th holiday.  It amazing how celebrating holidays can bring back a treasure trove of childhood memories. I often write about my childhood memories growing up here in Washington and this weekend, I enjoyed many trips down memory lane thinking about the July 4th holidays of long-gone years past, and the family members who made the day special.

I have so many memories, but some of the best were when my relatives came to visit from Philadelphia and the many hours they spent in the kitchen or living room sharing stories from their youth. Here’s one of my favorites from the elders in the family.

When I was a young girl, my job one Fourth of July was washing some pots and pans after dinner with Bab-O Cleanser. One of my great-aunts from Philadelphia watching me said to my mom, that she “was surprised to see ‘Old Man Bab-O’s cleaning products still on the market.”   I asked, “Old Man Bab-O, who was that?”

The kitchen lit up with lively conversation about Old Man Bab-O.  Turns out Old Man Bab-O was Benjamin Talbot Babbitt (1809-1889) one of the wealthiest businessmen of his time, who had his advertising campaign come to Washington frequently to do his ‘Babbitt’s Magic Lantern Show downtown.

My grandmother and her friends remembered him very well.  She had learned about him from her mother.   Babbitt was an entrepreneur, inventor and salesman extraordinaire.  His company came to Washington often from what I was told from in the early 1880’s. They came to town with a lavishly decorated, brightly painted railroad car and a bandwagon that was adorned the same way, pulled by eight white Arabian horses. He had musicians dancing, singing and playing their instruments alongside the bandwagon.  They would sing about Babbitt’s products and would set up in the middle of Main Street between Respess and Market Streets.

Local folks said the magic show was better than any show they had ever seen, and that Babbitt was even better than P. T. Barnum.  Men as well as woman came to the shows, and it was a big treat for the children. He did fascinating things with a soap bubble machine and the adults came out in droves for the free samples of bar soap, detergent, baking powder and powdered yeast for baking.

At first, I didn’t get what the big deal was about a traveling salesman with fancy white horses and a big bubble machine until they explained who Babbitt was.

He achieved so many firsts in the advertising world that his name was legendary.  Bab-O Cleanser was one of the last products his company produced and amazingly when I checked Amazon, it is still being sold, but produced now by another company.

He was the first person to introduce soap powder in 1845.  Before that, most laundry was done with lye soap.  He was also first to sell bars of soap. Soap before Babbitt’s product was made in long bars.  The bars were cut into chunks and then sold by the pound.

In the early 1850’s, Babbitt started to precut his soap into bars and wrapped them in beautifully decorated paper.  Then he sold the soap from his wonderfully decorated wagon that was irresistible and impossible to just walk by without looking. Then he would give bars of the soap to the crowd for free.

Most folks loved the novelty of soap bars, but some complained they didn’t like soap that they couldn’t see because it was “all gussied up in fancy wrapping paper.” So, Babbitt told them to bring him the wrapper and he would give them a discount on their next purchase. This was the birth of the redemption of coupons, and it changed the world of advertising.

It was really cool to hear the stories of my great-grandmother’s childhood because I never knew her.  I really enjoyed listening to all those old stories and things they shared.  That was such good family time.

After putting research to what they shared, I found those old stories very accurate and very amazing. I will keep sharing then with you.  Thank you for reading my column.

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-founder and co-3xecutive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.