Whitewashing in American Households with “Fun-to-Wash” and “California Citrus” Washing Powders, 1910-1930

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. on this national holiday, there is much to think about, whether it is those areas of progress made and those that are lagging in race relations or looking back on the history of race relations in our country in terms of overt and cover issues of the representation of race and ethnicity in society, among others.

Today’s post looks at two artifacts from the Homestead’s collection that are everyday objects, but with one demonstrating a very overt and the other a more covert expression of white supremacy and privilege.  They are product packages for washing powder, dating to the 1910s and 1920s and from opposite ends of the United States, and they speak directly to how ingrained racial prejudice was at the time.

fun to wash ottawa_citizen_apr_7__1913_
Ottawa (Canada) Citizen, 7 April 1913.

The older of the two packages is for “Fun-to-Wash Washing Powder,” manufactured in Buffalo by The Hygienic Laboratories, Inc. and offered for sale from about 1912 to about the end of the decade with instructions in English and German.  Besides the fact that almost no one would really think that using the product would be in any way enjoyable, the cover image is a striking and very direct representation of racial stereotyping.

Presented in bright yellow and red, the cover has a Mammy or maid image much like that found on other packaging, such as Aunt Jemima pancake mix (a product discussed recently on this blog.)  The red bandana is one such indicator, but more to the point is the exaggerated physical features of the woman, including the broad and flat nose and the large lips.  This image is one that would be promoted, along with others like Uncle Ben, Sambo and others, in many forms in American society decades.

The second package is “California Citrus Washing Powder,” made by the Citrus Soap Company of San Diego from the early 1920s through at least 1930, and in this case the messaging is more indirect.  There is no stereotypical image here, just a benign representation of a lemon, the acidic properties of which are key to the ingredients of the product.  Instead, there is a statement that use of the powder will “KEEP YOUR HANDS SOFT AND WHITE.”

The cover of a “Fun-to-Wash Washing Powder” box, dating to about 1915, from the Homestead’s collection.  Because of its date, it is not regularly exhibited.

We’ve displayed the latter box in the Kitchen area of La Casa Nueva regularly over the last decade or more and, generally, the statement at the bottom of the box has to be pointed out to visitors, who usually would not notice it.  Because the “Fun to Wash” product was not made or sold in the late 1920s, when La Casa Nueva was completed and occupied by the Temple family, it is not on display.  If it was to be exhibited, however, there would clearly be an immediate and visceral reaction by our guests.

Yet, just as obviously, it is likely that white buyers and users of both products in the 1910s and 1920s didn’t even give the representation of race a second thought, because stereotypes of blacks, as well as, less frequently, Asians and Latinos, were so pervasive and accepted by whites that they were thoroughly ingrained into the society that they dominated, numerically, economically, and politically.

At the Homestead, we’ve made an effort in recent years to look more intensively and thoughtfully about the thorny and difficult issues related to race and ethnicity.  The Workman and Temple families, for example, were biracial, with British, American and Mexican ethnicities and there were times when they identified with one more than the other, dependent on the situation.

Also from the museum’s holdings is this box of “California Citrus Washing Powder” from 1928 that is frequently exhibited in La Casa Nueva’s Kitchen.

For example, the eight surviving of the eleven children of Antonia Margarita Workman, who was half British and half Mexican (and likely some measure of Indian from her New Mexican-born mother), and F.P.F. Temple, a Yankee from Massachusetts, were fluent Spanish speakers and identified heavily with their Latino heritage.  A couple lived in Mexico for extended periods, yet some of them moved easily in the dominant society when it came to business and education.

Walter P. Temple, in building La Casa Nueva, utilized many Latino themes in the design of the house.  Yet, in developing the Town of Temple in 1923 (renamed Temple City five years later), he created a community that, in its sales pamphlet, openly advertised that the town was inhabited only by whites (albeit “of a desirable class.”)  His four surviving children were also fluent Spanish speakers and often, especially eldest child Thomas, demonstrated a strong interest in their Latino backgrounds.

On occasion, though, the Temple children could, even with their last name, encounter race-related reactions.  One of the most notable of these was in the senior class yearbook for Agnes, the family’s sole daughter, when she graduated from the all-girl (and almost completely white) Dominican College in San Rafael in spring 1929.  Her portrait and accompanying description refers to her as “typically Spanish,” citing her passion, emotion and other traits adhering to the stereotype of the “hot-blooded Latin.”

california citrus powder [portland]_oregon_daily_journal_wed__sep_7__1921_
[Portland] Oregon Daily Journal, 7 September 1921.
So, the museum will continue to explore issues of race and ethnicity in its tours, events, and programs because the connections between the way we look at these questions now and their manifestations in the past still have plenty of opportunity for educational purpose and benefit.

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