WARNING: The below 19th century strip contains racist imagery and language.
The 1892 giveaway booklet Light and Shade, advertising Dreydoppel Soap, and containing the below 8-panel story, is (in my opinion) the most heinous piece of comic strip advertising I’ve ever seen. I debated myself over whether I could stomach scanning and posting this horrible, ugly story as part of this year’s African American History Month postings. And some of you may be asking, why the Hell am I showing it?
My feeling on running this — as well as other racist, misogynist, and/or discriminatory material from the past — is that this is our history. Cleaning up history to hide the ugliness that happened, to conceal what was at one time common place and wouldn’t have (at the time) caused a first thought let alone second, would be just as bad a “white washing” of the past, as is the below story involving the efforts of a black child to change the complexion of his skin to white. The theme of non-whites attempting to alter their skin color by literally “white washing” it, was not uncommon in jokes, children’s publications, and yes, advertising of the 19th century and early 20th. Soap companies were the most likely to use it in their advertising. What makes their use of such a theme particularly egregious, is the indirectly communicated implication that all non-whites are dirty and lazy people who, if they would merely take the time to wash themselves, would become white and clean. That their existence as (supposed) inferiors was entirely in their control – they have merely to wash themselves to rise as equals – therefore (white society was telling itself), the discrimination and injustices heaped upon non-whites, was (by this twisted logic) deserved.
Dreydoppel Soap, in its Light and Shade advertising booklet, takes this repulsive theme a further step. The crude interior art makes our protagonist look more like an object, a toy – a stereotype “tar baby” — than an actual human being. Add further the character’s self-hate, demonstrated by the lengths that he goes, to deny and change his racial identity. All these elements combine to make this a thoroughly disgusting booklet.
Next week, we’ll close on something more pleasant.