There’s a question that’s been burning in the unscrubbed corners of my mind for a long time. We are told that Ivory soap is “99 and 44/100% pure.” What’s in the other 56/100% (or 0.56% if you prefer)? –Peter Holland, Chicago

You’re not the first to wonder. Actually it consists of “foreign and unnecessary substances,” by which I suppose they mean, for example, Dudley Moore. It all started in 1881 when Harley Procter, son of Procter & Gamble cofounder William Procter and a legendary soap salesman in his own right, decided he needed a new angle to hawk Ivory soap. Then as now people were impressed by scientific testimonials, and Harley decided if he could come up with a lab test showing Ivory was “purer” than other soaps he’d win sales.

Trouble was, there wasn’t a standard for purity in soap, so Harley hired an independent scientific consultant in New York to concoct one. The consultant concluded that a 100 percent pure soap would consist of nothing but fatty acids and alkali, the somewhat yucky sounding substances that nonetheless are the chief ingredients of most soap.

That definition having been arrived at, Harley sent out some Ivory soap for analysis and compared it with earlier analyses he’d had done of castile soap, regarded at the time as the best soap available. He was gratified to discover that by his consultant’s definition, Ivory soap was purer than the castile soaps. The impurities consisted of uncombined alkali, 0.11 percent; carbonates, 0.28 percent; and mineral matter, 0.17 percent. Total: 0.56 percent. Thinking that “99 and 44/100% pure” had just the right touch of technical authenticity to appeal to the great unwashed, so to speak, Harley began sticking the phrase in Ivory advertisements, and another classic marketing slogan was born.


I just read your column on the Scottish origin of cross burning by the Ku Klux Klan and would like to make a few clarifications. First, people of Scottish descent are referred to as Scots or being Scottish, not Scotch as you said. Scotch is a liquid, not a heritage.

Second, while I do not believe it was your intention, your article seems to imply that Scots were a bunch of bloodthirsty cross burners. This is not the case at all. The gathering of the highland clans was called by lighting a beacon shaped as a Saint Andrew’s cross, which is in the shape of an X, not the T shape of the Roman crosses. (It was much easier to lean the timbers in this design to make a beacon that could be seen for miles.) The flames were never doused in “sacrificial blood”; rather, each family representative would cast a torch into the fire to announce they had arrived. The flames went out on their own when the timbers had been consumed. This tradition is still performed at the Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, Scottish Festival every July.

Granted, people of Scottish and Irish descent settled mostly in the southern United States, which explains much of the violence in the history of that region (see Celtic Origins in Southern Violence, Dr. John Pancake, University of Alabama). However, I can assure you that there is not now, nor has there ever been, any connection between the highland clans of Scotland and the KKK. –William Speir Jr., Plano, Texas

We got several letters about the Scotch-Scottish thing. According to my dictionary, Scottish was the original term, while Scotch was a later English contraction used by, among others, the poet Robert Burns. Anglophobic Scots now argue that Scotch ought to be expunged from the language, or at least applied only to whisky (as distinct from whiskey, the latter referring generically to distilled spirits while whisky means stuff made in Scotland). But the battle is far from won usagewise and I for one regard the distinction as pointless. That said, I am always sympathetic to the efforts of a fellow nitpicker and propose a deal: I will zealously enforce the distinction between Scotch and Scottish if you do likewise for my favorite word pair, namely “while” and “whilst.” The difference, I’m sure you’ll agree, is subtle yet profound.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.