Development of Tide Synthetic Detergent
Dedicated October 25, 2006, at Procter & Gamble headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The description of synthetic detergents as the first big change in soap making in two millennia was hardly an exaggeration. Tide, the first heavy-duty synthetic detergent, was not just a new product, but a new kind of product. It was based on synthetic compounds rather than natural products. Although initially targeted for marketing in areas of hard water, synthetic detergents—with Tide® in the lead—soon displaced traditional soaps throughout the United States.
In 1837 James Gamble, a soap maker, and William Procter, a candle maker, joined forces at the suggestion of their mutual father-in-law, Alexander Norris, who was also a candle maker. It was a logical union since both soaps and candles used the same raw materials, fats and oils. The partners agreed on $7,192.24 as the new firm's starting capital, creating a 50/50 partnership to last fifteen years. They were a good team, with Gamble running the factory, Procter the office or "store." Their backgrounds were similar with both men emigrating from the British Isles. Gamble's family came from Ireland to America in 1819 while Procter arrived in 1832 from England.
Procter & Gamble was formed at an opportune time. Economic expansion in the United States was beginning to alter the manufacture and distribution of commodities such as soaps and candles. While the economy remained overwhelmingly rural and agrarian, small areas of urbanization and industrialization existed. Cincinnati—Procter & Gamble's base—was strategically located on the Ohio River, giving the city access to the key port of New Orleans. In 1840 the completion of the Miami Canal linked Cincinnati into the Great Lakes system and ultimately, through the Erie Canal, to New York City.
Cincinnati, known as "Porkopolis," was the largest meatpacking center in the United States in the years when James Gamble and William Procter went into business. This put P&G close to the animal by-products—lard and tallow—critical to the manufacture of soap and candles. With a ready supply of raw materials, the two entrepreneurs built up their business by shipping candles and soap on steamboats down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and to New Orleans. By the 1850s, as the second generation of Procters and Gambles entered the business, the firm expanded production, by relying this time on railroads to move its products to markets. Railroads had many advantages over rivers and canals: The tracks did not freeze in winter and trains were faster, more regular and less expensive than steamboats. Railroads also expanded the distribution possibilities.
Procter & Gamble grew into a million-dollar enterprise during the Civil War as the firm obtained huge contracts to supply some of the Union armies with soap and candles. The procurements strained the company, forcing factories to run around the clock. But Procter & Gamble was considered so important to the war effort that when martial law was declared in Cincinnati (across the river from slave-holding Kentucky and itself a hotbed of Copperhead, or pro-Southern, sentiment), the company was permitted to remain in business.
By the 1870s Procter & Gamble had grown into a company capable of producing and distributing on a national level. But the company was facing a crisis brought on by a decline in one of its core sectors—candle making. The discovery of oil in 1859 in Pennsylvania made kerosene readily available. After the Civil War, consumers began to switch from candles to oil lamps, and by 1876 P&G's candle production sank below soap production for the first time in the company's history, forcing it to expand the soap side of the business to stay competitive.
Ivory soap was P&G's response to the crisis. Ivory represented a departure for the company because, for the first time, P&G sought to specifically develop a product separate from its traditional goods. This new soap was made from vegetable oils, not the tallow, grease or lard the company had used for all its soaps in the past. Ivory resulted from experimentation aimed at developing a castile-like soap, long considered the hallmark of fine soap. Ivory was comparable in quality to expensive castile soaps but inexpensive enough to be mass marketed. Cost was kept low because Ivory was made not from olive oil but from a blend of cheaper coconut and palm oils. Ivory was white, it lathered easily but remained solid, and it lasted longer than other soaps. It was pure soap—99 and 44/100% pure. And, of course, it floated.
Not only was Ivory a new product for Procter & Gamble, but the company marketed the soap far more aggressively than it had pushed its earlier soaps and candles. Newspaper and advertising revenue expanded and a bevy of marketing initiatives were deployed: Mass distribution of samples, premiums, inserts, and advertising on wall signs, streetcars, steamers and the like. The success of Ivory made Procter & Gamble a multi-million dollar industrial giant.
But Ivory was still a traditional soap using readily available raw materials. As such, P&G during its first century remained essentially a soap company. A dramatic change in the company would come only with the development of synthetic detergents in the 1930s and 40s. The introduction of first Dreft® and then Tide® changed Procter & Gamble into a company that utilized technology and chemical experimentation to produce new products which in turn were marketed globally. As one researcher involved in the development of Tide later recalled, "P&G would no longer be a soap company… it would become an industrial corporation with its future based on technology. We had done some things up until then… but we were still a soap company with these extras. With Tide, we were no longer a soap company."1
"In April 1931," Robert Duncan, a process engineer with Procter & Gamble recalled, "I left on a trip… to visit some plants on the [European] continent on a scouting expedition to see if I could learn anything concerning processes or products of interest to P&G."2 One visit took Duncan to the I.G. Farben Research Laboratories in Germany. Duncan saw and heard nothing of interest on his official tour, but "when I left it was approaching their quitting time and one of their men asked to ride with me as far as his home. In the conversation enroute [sic] I asked whether there were any other developments which might be of interest to P&G and which they had not shown me. After thinking a moment, he said, 'Yes, there is one development which I believe you will find interesting from an academic point of view, but I am sure it will be of no commercial interest to P&G.'"3
Duncan's confidante related that during the First World War—when Germans were unable to obtain soap—German chemists had visited a little textile plant that used bile from slaughtered cattle as a wetting agent in its dyeing process. The practice of using bile as a substitute for soap, which is also a wetting agent, "was a bit of old folklore." I.G. Farben isolated the active ingredient, which it then synthesized and marketed as Igepon to the textile trade. "It was described," Duncan related, "as a good wetting agent, a fair detergent, not affected by hard water, and resistant to acid. But it was also described as hard to make, expensive, and with physical characteristics that would make it unsuitable for detergent use in the home. Just then we came to his village and he left."4
This "interesting bit of information" grabbed Duncan's attention since P&G made soaps, but, he wrote, "it did not seem tactful to go back to I.G. and ask them about something they had not officially told me but about which I had learned through the back door." Instead, Duncan contacted a colleague at Deutsche Hydrierwerke which was about to market a competitive product. Duncan visited the factory which was producing saturated fatty alcohols by catalytic hydrogenation. The company hoped to sell the finished alkyl sulfate to the textile trade. But, Duncan added in his account, "they had no notion as to what value, if any, it had as detergent for home use but agreed we could have some of the product to study." Duncan purchased 100 kilograms or the material, which he express shipped to Cincinnati.5
Duncan was interested in the German research because traditional soaps did not work well in hard water, where they deposited a residue of scum, or curds. Duncan understood that the properties that made the surface-active agent ("surfactant") an effective wetting agent theoretically should make it an effective detergent as well. With the German material in hand, P&G researchers went to work and discovered that it was possible to create a two-part molecule—resembling a string—which would allow water to break up oils and grease and float away dirt. One end of this molecule bonds with oils and grease, the other with water: "This two-part characteristic allows the molecule [a surfactant]… to actually pull oils and grease into a water solution. Once that happens, water soluble soils can be washed away."6
During the summer and early fall of 1931, the research department tried to process the alkyl sulfates into bars, flakes, granules and liquids to determine the best form for potential marketing; and researchers conducted tests on its stability and the quality of the suds the alkyl sulfates produced. Samples were provided for home tests in an informal consumer survey. Duncan says "most of the people in the Chemical Division had some part in this testing…"7 The test results appeared favorable, so in October P&G sent a representative to Germany to work out a licensing agreements with Deutsche Hydrierwerke and another German company which was making unsaturated alkyl sulfates from sperm whale oil. Other complications cropped up involving DuPont which had applied for a patent to make fatty alcohols and National Aniline which was interested in marketing alkyl sulfates to U.S textile companies. By 1932, license agreements were signed with all the contending parties, and "P&G was then free to develop and market alkyl sulfates as synthetic detergents in the household and laundry fields."8
Procter & Gamble decided to market a granulated laundry detergent and a liquid shampoo. The company launched Dreft,® the first synthetic detergent, in 1933 and Drene, the first synthetic hair shampoo, the following year. Both products found a niche in the market, but sales were relatively small. Dreft in particular represented a breakthrough in detergents since it cleaned clothes in hard water without leaving curds, a significant benefit for those who lived where the water is hard, which is roughly the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains. But the detergent did not clean heavily soiled clothes. P&G chemical engineers knew that cleaning ability could be improved by "building" the surfactant, that is, by adding chemical compounds—sodium phosphates—to increase the surfactant's ability to get at deeply embedded dirt. But the "builders" left clothes harsh and stiff because the chemicals reacted with the water's hardness to form insoluble, granular deposits that would not rinse away. Because of its limitations, Dreft without builders remained a useful product, but one with a narrow market appeal—for delicate fabrics and baby clothes.9
When William Cooper Procter, president of the company from 1907-1930 and chairman from 1930-1934, approved "the plan to work on synthetic detergents he remarked 'This may ruin the soap business. But if anybody is going to ruin the soap business it had be better be Procter & Gamble."10 Dreft's appeal was too limited for it to "ruin the soap business." But P&G sensed the future lay with synthetic detergents and for the next decade and a half its researchers explored various ways to build the cleaning power of synthetic detergents. The result would be Tide®—which did ruin the soap business.
Throughout the 1930s Procter & Gamble's chemists and chemical engineers at the Ivorydale Technical Center worked to develop a heavy-duty synthetic laundry detergent. The researchers experimented on the surfactant-builder problem, attempting to develop an alkyl sulfate-based detergent that cleaned heavily soiled clothes without leaving them hard and stiff. They tried to build the surfactant with different chemicals; they added soaps to synthetic detergents; they mixed and matched formulae, tried them as flakes, granules and liquids, but nothing worked satisfactorily. By the end of the decade, the company had all but given up on developing a heavy-duty synthetic detergent and management began shifting research into other projects. As David "Dick" Byerly, the holder of the key Tide® patent, later recalled: "For almost 10 years we experimented with the new surface-active agents, the basic cleaning agents of synthetic detergents. By the middle of 1941, we still had not come up with a satisfactory, heavy-duty, non-soap product."11
Despite repeated frustrations, Byerly refused to shelve the research and his doggedness insured that Procter & Gamble, not Colgate or Lever Brothers, would be the developer of the first heavy-duty synthetic detergent. But his superiors did not see it that way at the time, and management frequently tried to discourage him from working on what became known as Project X. One of the Byerly's superiors, Thomas Halberstadt, later reminisced about Byerly: "I was very fond of Dick but you've got to understand the man to understand what he did… Dick was an obstinate cuss in some ways. Tenacious as all get out!" But Halberstadt recognized the value of Byerly's tenaciousness: "…Dick's the kind of a guy that somehow or other he'll find a way—if you want a job done, give it to a busy man. Dick was that kind of guy. He would get it done." In the case of Product X, tenacious Dick Byerly "persisted."12
Halberstadt became Byerly's boss in 1939 when he assumed responsibility for product development research for soaps. By that time, research into boosting the cleaning power of synthetic detergents had been put on the back burner. But Byerly wanted to keep experimenting, using superphosphates as the builder. He tried a variant called sodium pyrophosphate, which "cleaned your shirt and mine, but lo and behold, it left the shirt feeling like sandpaper." Byerly was doing this research surreptitiously; he had "long since given up putting this [Product X work] in his weekly report because the only comments he ever got were 'What in the hell are you working on that for?'"13
Byerly regarded Halberstadt cautiously at first, not wanting to reveal his secretive work on synthetic detergents. "He came to me one day," Halberstadt recalled, "and said, 'Now that you're here, I want to know, am I going to be allowed to work on what I think I should be work[ing] on?' I didn't know what he was talking about." Byerly took Halberstadt to his laboratory where they spent two days looking through Byerly's records for the previous five years. "I was impressed," Halberstadt later told a company interviewer. Byerly's data showed that building the surfactant with sodium pyrophosphate resulted in good cleaning. The question was, could Byerly find a formula that would not leave the fabric stiff and rough?14
Halberstadt kicked Byerly's request upstairs to his boss, Herb Coith, the associate director of the Chemical Division. Coith knew about Product X, "but he didn't know all that Dick had done because Dick hadn't reported it." Halberstadt apparently was persuasive, because Coith agreed, adding, "just don't get into any big deal about it." Coith did not object to Byerly tinkering in his laboratory on his own time, but he did not want Halberstadt and Byerly to go to Bruce Strain, the manager of process development for detergents, and ask for "samples made in their pilot plant."15
So Byerly received tacit approval to continue Project X quietly. But his efforts were further hampered by the outbreak of World War II, which led to shortages of raw materials, and the need to convert some processes to military supply and to reformulate many products because of rationing. At one point Coith ordered Halberstadt to shut down Project X because a senior manager learned about it and wondered "how you fellows can fiddle around with a product" P&G had no intention of making "when we've got more unanswered problems out here in the factories." But Byerly sulked and eventually Halberstadt relented: "There was a great deal of work done that was never reported. We new we couldn't. That was that."16
Despite the fits and starts and constant strains, Byerly was making progress. By 1941, he had concluded that the best builder was sodium tripolyphosphate. More importantly, Byerly had a counterintuitive breakthrough. All previous research on soaps and detergents had shown that reducing the amount of builder in a formula yielded a less harsh product (and it was the harshness of products with builder that hamstrung the project for so many years). Like his predecessors and colleagues, Byerly at first tried to keep the proportion of surfactant—the actual cleaning agent—as high as possible. But when he inverted the ratio by boosting the level of builder well above the amount of surfactant, he got a surprising result: The detergent cleaned well without leaving clothes stiff and harsh. After a great deal of trial and error, Byerly determined that the correct formula was one part active detergent, alkyl sulfate, to three parts builder, sodium tripolyphosphate. No one could figure out why it worked, but it worked.17
As Byerly was closing in on the correct formula, it became harder to keep Project X under wraps. Halberstadt and Byerly had been warned not to go to the pilot plants and ask for sample products, but research using hand-mixed materials could not be fully tested. At some point, progress depended on actually testing granulated, or blown, samples. Eventually, Halberstadt had to approach Bruce Strain to get some granules for Byerly's project. Strain would from time to time oblige him, but inevitably the circle of those who knew what was going on got bigger and bigger. In any event, by 1945 the research was far enough along for Herb Coith to decide that Project X should be presented to senior management.18
Thomas Halberstadt and Herb Coith put together a demonstration on Project X sometime in the middle of 1945. Attending the session were Richard Deupree, president of Procter & Gamble, Ralph Rogan, vice president for advertising, Neil McElroy, then an advertising manager, later Deupree's successor as president, and R.K. Brodie, vice president of manufacturing and technical research. The executives quickly realized that Project X represented a significant innovation. The question was how to proceed in manufacturing and marketing the new product.
Deupree asked how long it would take to merchandise a synthetic detergent. He was told it would take several months to collect samples; then P&G would need about six months to run blind tests in a few cities and analyze the results. Added time would be needed to work in changes revealed by the tests. After that, the company would conduct shipping tests: that involved manufacturing some of the product, shipping it to select markets, trying out advertising strategies in those markets, polling consumers about the product, and then refining the detergent based on the results of testing. If this typical schedule was followed Project X would be ready for test marketing in about two years; a full-scale national launch would come a year later. And P&G had always followed this typical schedule.19
But the executives sensed that the researchers had developed a potential blockbuster product, an innovative product that called for innovative production and marketing techniques and schedules. Brodie pointed out that if P&G followed the normal rollout schedule "Lever and Colgate will get samples of our product shortly after we start blind testing. Then they will put together some kind of product… Surely their product will not be as good as ours, but they will crowd the market." If P&G bypassed the normal tests, "this would give us a two years start over Lever and Colgate."20 Others at the meeting dissented at first, noting that Brodie's suggestion meant a blind commitment of millions of dollars in new equipment and advertising for a product that no one was sure would be a success. But in the end, though everyone understood the risk, Project X appeared extraordinary, and it was decided, in Deupree's words, to go "full speed ahead!"21
Project X quickly moved from a backchannel research oddity to the forefront of P&G's product development. Tide® was chosen as the name, though no one can recall why. The marketers and branders quickly swung into action. The famous box of concentric rings of vivid orange and red in a bull's eye motif with Tide in blue letters was developed. The slogan "oceans of suds" became part of the early marketing campaign. In addition, early advertising stressed that Tide was a "Washday Miracle" that promised to wash laundry "cleaner than soap." The advertisers were confident in making that claim because Tide's performance was truly superior. Still, it was a significant claim for a company whose livelihood depended on soaps.22
While the marketers forged ahead, the process engineers had to solve several problems. First, the company had to secure sufficient quantities of tripolyphosphate to justify a major plant expansion. Second, P&G needed to build new facilities, particularly four new towers to granulate, or blow, Tide. The existing facilities could not be converted to produce Tide because synthetics required a different granulation process than soaps.
Then the process engineers had to work out some problems in the original formulation of Tide. "The initial formulation has some real limitations," recalled Charles Fullgraf, superintendent at P&G's St. Bernard plant. "It did not blow very well. It built up in the tower, it built up in the feeder valves. We had to shut down every hour and clean them out."23 According to James Ewell, plant manager at St. Bernard before Fullgraf, "the first experiments were run over on the Dreft® tower at Ivorydale, and they were failures… Blowing a granule sounds easy, but it isn't. You can't get the right density, all sorts of strange things happen inside synthetic towers. And they didn't know enough about the operation of towers in those days, especially with a heavily built product like Tide. It had a lot of phosphate in it. Dreft didn't have any builders, so it was a completely different operation."24 The addition of a small amount of sodium silicate solved the problem, allowing for crisper granules that could more easily be blown.
With the granulation problem solved and with new towers in production, P&G began test marketing tide in October 1946 in six cities: Springfield, Massachusetts; Albany, New York; Evansville, Indiana; Lima, Ohio; Wichita, Kansas; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The date of the introduction coincided with the spread of automatic top-loading washing machines. The link between the new heavy-duty synthetic detergents and the new automatic washers was reinforced a few years later when P&G struck agreements with a number of washing machine manufacturers to pack boxes of Tide in the new machines.25
Tide was an instant marketing success, selling out in markets all over the country as quickly as P&G could make it. Tide quickly boosted Procter & Gamble's share of the laundry market as both Colgate and Lever Brothers scurried to develop synthetic detergents. That was the good news; the bad news is that Tide also undermined P&G's traditional soap brands. By 1949 production of the company's synthetic detergents outstripped its soap production. To a certain extent P&G strategists were caught off guard by Tide's phenomenal success. The company had expected Tide to sell well in hard-water regions, where traditional soaps did not perform well. But in fact, consumers all over the country, even in soft-water areas, quickly switched to synthetics, with Tide leading the way. By the early 1950s, Tide had captured more than 30 percent share of the laundry market, and it has been the number one selling laundry detergent every year since.26
- G. Thomas Halberstadt, Interview, April 7, 1984, P&G Archives. On the history of Procter & Gamble, see the following: Davis Dyer, Frederick Dalzell, and Rowena Olegario, Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004); Oscar Schisgall, Eyes on Tomorrow: The Evolution of Procter & Gamble (Chicago: J.G. Ferguson Publishing Co., 1981); Alfred Lief, "It Floats": The Story of Procter & Gamble (NY: Rinehart & Company, 1958). See also, Memorable Years in P&G History, in-house booklet that is not dated. For a discussion of the history of soap, see The Story of Soap, a Procter & Gamble in-house booklet dated 1956.
- Robert A. Duncan, "P&G Develops Synthetic Detergents: A Short History," Typewritten manuscript, September 5, 1958, P&G Archives, p. 1.
- Ibid, p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 3. The terms soap and detergent are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. The broadest definition of a detergent is a compound or combination of compounds used for cleaning. Therefore, all soaps are detergents but not all detergents are soaps. Soaps are generally made from the reaction of animal or vegetable fat (oil or glyceride) with a base, such as found in wood ashes, to yield a salt of a long chain fatty acid. The long organic chain is hydrophobic, i.e., it hates water, but does dissolve grease, oil and dirt, while the salt end of the molecule is hydrophilic, i.e., it likes water. The combination in a single molecule gives soap its cleaning power. A detergent, as used in this brochure, is a compound that has been specifically designed and synthesized to have hydrophobic and hydrophilic parts, but it is not derived from animal or vegetable fats, and has cleaning properties equal to or better than any soap. A wetting agent is a compound that increases the ability and speed with which a liquid displaces air from a solid surface thus improving the process of wetting that surface. A surfactant is a wetting agent.
- Memorable Years in P&G History, in-house booklet, undated, p. 28.
- Duncan, "P&G Develops Synthetic Detergents," p. 4.
- Ibid, pp. 4-5.
- Davis Dyer, Frederick Dalzell, and Rowena Olegario, Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004), p. 70. Duncan, "P&G Develops Synthetic Detergents," p. 6.
- Ibid., p. 5.
- Cited in Memorable Years in P&G History, in-house booklet, undated, p. 28. See also, D.R. Byerly, "History of Tide," Typewritten manuscript, June 15, 1950, P&G Archives; Alfred Lief, "It Floats": The Story of Procter & Gamble (NY: Rinehart & Company, 1958), p. 241.
- G. Thomas Halberstadt, Interview, April 7, 1984, P&G Archives.
- Davis Dyer, Frederick Dalzell, and Rowena Olegario, Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004), p. 73.
- Halberstadt Interview; Dyer, et al., Rising Tide, p. 73
- G. Thomas Halberstadt, Interview, April 7, 1984, P&G Archives; Davis Dyer, Frederick Dalzell, and Rowena Olegario, Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004), p. 74.
- Halberstadt Interview.
- For an in-depth discussion of marketing and branding Tide, see Dyer, et al., Rising Tide, Chapter 4.
- Charles M. Fullgraf Interview, February 16, 1995, P&G Archives.
- J.M. Ewell Interview, June 22m 1994, P&G Archives.
- Dyer, et al., Rising Tide, p. 77. The Federal Trade Commission eventually disallowed such exclusive agreements, but by the time the FTC acted, Tide had become inextricably linked with the new automatic washing machines.
- Ibid., pp. 80-81.
- Soap Box Science - the "unofficial" history of laundry (Tide, Procter & Gamble)
The American Chemical Society designated the development of Tide®—the first heavy-duty synthetic detergent—as a National Historic Chemical Landmark at Procter & Gamble headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 25, 2006. The plaque commemorating the event reads:
In 1933 Procter & Gamble introduced Dreft, a synthetic detergent made from an alkyl sulfate. Dreft cleaned clothes in hard water without depositing a residue of soap scum, a problem common to traditional soaps. But it was not strong enough to clean heavily soiled clothes. To solve this problem, P&G chemists, working at the Ivorydale Technical Center, added a "builder," sodium tripolyphosphate, to the surfactant (cleaning agent) and determined that an effective formula contained three parts builder to one part detergent. These breakthroughs led in 1946 to the debut of Tide, the first heavy-duty synthetic detergent. The simultaneous introduction of automatic washing machines saved the consumer time and effort.
Adapted for the internet from “The Development of Tide®,” produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2006.
American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. The Development of Tide Synthetic Detergent. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/tidedetergent.html (accessed Month Day, Year).
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Take action: Nominate a Landmark and Contact the NHCL Coordinator.