INSIDE THE NUMBERS: USING PRIVATE COMMERCIAL DATA TO ANALYZE EAST AFRICAN IMPORTED SOAP CONSUMPTION, 1870-1914
Social historians identify soap as a “new need,” and argue its consumption indicates changing notions of bodily cleanliness, beauty and status. Relying largely on qualitative evidence such as traveler and missionary accounts, print advertising and oral interviews, they contend African soap use was influenced by Christian missions, colonial education and branding in the marketplace. Quantitative evidence – limited customs data – neither confirms nor challenges this position. More detailed commercial records, however, paint a somewhat different picture. The East African correspondence of William O’Swald & Co. indicates that soap marketing predated both Christian missions and colonial influence. Further, general purpose laundry soap was the overwhelming best seller. Personal toilette soaps lagged far behind. Laundering imported cotton textiles appeared the motive for initial soap purchases, and perhaps also the first step toward later personal soap use.