One of the affiliate companies in the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies is known for its tradition of using famous actresses in its advertising. As it turns out, actresses like Jennifer Garner in the U.S. and Deepika Padukone in India are not the first celebrities to endorse our products. Some very well-known actresses (and some actors and athletes) were also singing the praises of one of our products almost 100 years ago, in the Nineteen Teens… The product was Synol Soap, an antiseptic soap, and famous Broadway and vaudeville actresses of the day were writing to Johnson & Johnson to tell the Company about how much they liked the product and how they used it as part of their theater routines.
The most famous of those actresses was Louise Dresser, who appeared in 49 films and was one of the three nominees for the first-ever Academy Award for best actress for 1928. In 1914, she was in a Broadway play called “Potash and Perlmutter” and wrote to the Company:
“ ‘Upon the recommendation of my physician, I have been using Synol Soap for the past year and have gotten so that I cannot do without it. It is a most excellent preparation for the complexion and a wonderful mouth wash. I have recommended it to all of my friends as an absolute necessity.’ ” [THE RED CROSS MESSENGER, Vol. VII, No. 1, June, 1914, p. 14]
In the more than slightly melodramatic style of the day, Dresser continued:
“ ‘For the sake of humanity, I would suggest that you make known to the world the benefits that can be derived from this wonderful preparation.’ ” [THE RED CROSS MESSENGER, Vol. VII, No. 1, June, 1914, p. 14]
An endorsement like that was of course way too good to pass up, so scientific director and chief publicity officer Fred Kilmer printed it in THE RED CROSS MESSENGER, the Company publication for retail pharmacists, along with the line drawing of Louise Dresser seen above.
Trixie Friganza, a leading musical comedy actress known for her many roles and her social activism, wrote: “ ‘To me Synol Soap has proved itself indispensable for its many uses. I have used it for several years and have found that none can compare with it as a toilet necessity, and I am never without it. Wishing you continued success in your needful venture.’ ” [THE RED CROSS MESSENGER, Vol VII, No. 2, July, 1914, p. 38] Besides being an actress, vaudeville headliner, and dedicated fan of Synol Soap, Trixie Friganza was also known for championing the struggle for women’s right to vote.
Public Domain photo of Trixie Friganza campaigning for women’s suffrage, courtesy of Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons
Illustration of Florence Reed from THE RED CROSS MESSENGER
Florence Reed, another well-known actress, also sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson. She was in a very popular play during the 1914 theater season, and she, too, made the Company’s antiseptic soap a part of her backstage ritual. She wrote: “ ‘I have used thousands of toilet preparations in my career, but have found Synol Soap to be incomparable for the complexion, hair, scalp, and as a mouth wash.’ ” [THE RED CROSS MESSENGER, Vol. VII, No. 1, June, 1914, p. 14]
Ms. Reed was clearly someone who believed in products that could multitask. Synol, which had a pleasant, slightly camphory smell, was antibacterial but mild enough for people to wash their hair and faces with it, and many of the actors and actresses used it to remove their heavy theatrical makeup. (That heavy makeup, worn daily, could wreak havoc on the complexion.) Stella Mayhew, an actress who appeared in many musicals and vaudeville reviews, wrote to tell Johnson & Johnson the following:
“ ‘Just a line to let you know that I have used your Synol Soap for the past few months and know of no other preparation that has any of the qualities that Synol has. It is excellent in removing makeup.’ ” [THE RED CROSS MESSENGER, Vol. VII, No. 1, June, 1914, p. 14]
Naturally, Fred Kilmer printed that excerpt from her letter in THE RED CROSS MESSENGER.
Sam Bernard used Synol Soap backstage on Broadway
It wasn’t just the women who were using Synol. Sam Bernard, appearing in a play at the Schubert Theater, wrote to tell the Company that “ ‘Your Synol Soap has proven a splendid addition to my toilet articles. I use it steadily and prefer it to all other such products.’ ” [THE RED CROSS MESSENGER, Vol. VII, No. 1, June, 1914, p. 14]
Public domain photo of Valli Valli, courtesy of Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons
A popular European silent film actress with the unlikely name of Valli Valli also was a fan of Synol. She wrote in a letter to Johnson & Johnson: “ ‘It is absolutely one of the best preparations I have ever used in my career for keeping the skin in perfect condition.’ ” [THE RED CROSS MESSENGER, Vol. VII, No. 1, June, 1914, p. 14]
So what exactly was this product that actors and actresses of the silent film and vaudeville era couldn’t do without? It’s another example of a product developed for doctors, surgeons and nurses that found wider use in society. Synol Soap had been developed by Johnson & Johnson around 1900 in response to a request from physicians for an antiseptic, germ killing soap that they could use to wash their hands, disinfect instruments and clean their patients. It came in cake form and liquid form (as shown above) in a glass bottle with a shaker top. In the days before antibiotics, Synol was widely promoted for a variety of uses to help keep people and their families healthier. Like all of the Company’s products, it worked well and, since Synol Soap was mild enough to be used like a regular soap, people were advised to do all kinds of things with it, from washing their hands and faces, to diluting it for use as a mouthwash, to shampooing their hair, to disinfecting their houses during spring cleaning. It’s not surprising that actors and actresses, looking for an all-purpose reliable product to help wash their makeup off, keep their complexions clear and keep themselves healthy so they wouldn’t miss a performance, would write rave reviews about Synol Soap.
Kilmer made these celebrity Synol testimonials a feature of two editions of THE RED CROSS MESSENGER in 1914. In other MESSENGERS, he printed Synol Soap testimonials from professional and amateur athletes. With the outbreak of World War I in Europe in August of that year, the articles in THE RED CROSS MESSENGER took a more serious turn. But it’s certain that retail druggists told their starstruck Synol Soap customers that some very famous faces were using Synol Soap too…just like they were.