Cleanliness – Next to Godliness
Just about the last regular job I ever had, before my current career as a self-employed creator of illustrated epigrams, was way back in the 1960s, in connection with a “floating university” – an actual institution of learning on board a converted cruise ship (a program still functioning, on various vessels, under the name of “Semester at Sea”). For two separate, three-and-a-half-month round-the-world voyages, I was aboard this ship (at first named the Seven Seas, then succeeded by the Ryndam) as a faculty member – an Associate Professor of History and Geography – and, for the months in between voyages, I was employed at the “land campus” at Chapman College (now Chapman University) in Orange, California (a city south of Los Angeles). My title there was Academic Coordinator, and my role was to help in preparations for the next voyage (a job in which unknowingly I hired my future wife).
Our headquarters were located in Orange, in a large house, which happened to be at the corner of Palm and Olive streets. And, whether or not by chance, the house had been painted what could truthfully be described as a mild and gentle “Palmolive Green.” Naturally, we called it Palmolive House – and from time to time, the idea was raised that, for promotional purposes, someone ought to write to the makers of Palmolive Soap (the Colgate-Palmolive Company) and tell them about the happy coincidence that, here we are, virtually using their name, and operating a traveling school, more than half of whose students were young women, no doubt major Palmolive users, concerned about keeping “that schoolgirl complexion.”
But anyone writing such a letter would have to be careful, because – at least, in those days – Chapman was a small pure-minded Christian College (how they ever acquired this ambitious program – and how I myself, fresh from a “free speech” scandal at my previous school, ever managed to get a job there, is a story in itself), and shrank from any promotional efforts tainted with commercialism. Anyway, the task of writing what became celebrated as “The Palmolive Letter” somehow devolved upon me, and I set to work researching all the products made by that Company, then trying to write a light-hearted letter, mentioning punningly as many of them as I could, while at the same time introducing our own educational program, and suggesting ways we might cooperate.
To give you an idea of what I came up with, here is an extract from the letter, with product names in caps:
“How would we like you to RESPOND? … Of course, we go WILDROOTING for ourselves. What we’d like you to do is make sure your Palmolive Soap floats, since otherwise it tends to damage our image as a floating campus. Failing that, instead of mere cash, your CASHMERE BOUQUET Talcum Powder, or a supply of Palmolive Soap … would be a fine way of cementing, or should we say lathering, the inevitable friendship between our two great institutions.”
Two months passed before any reply was received, and, when it came, to my amazement, it was in verse! It was signed by Arthur B. Baer, Jr., Senior Product Manager of the Colgate Palmolive Company. Its four stanzas had as many clever puns as my letter. But this was the key passage:
“So we ordered dispatched to the hold
Of the Ryndam enough bars, all told,
To have two for each student
The brand (we think prudent/ In tropics) is Palmolive Gold.”
The kindly corporation was as good as its word, and shortly after we sailed from New York, in a solemn ceremony, with elaborate costumes, I had the pleasure of distributing the “golden” bars of deodorant soap. The whole affair culminated in a message of thanks I sent to the Palmolive Company:
Explorers in the years of old
Crossed the seas in search of gold,
And, fearful for their limbs and lives,
Stocked their ships with guns and knives.
Today the world, from shore to shore,
Aboard the Ryndam we explore.
But, thanks to you, this ship of ours
Will take along its own gold bars,
And, to be safe as well as clean,
We’re armed with hexachlorophene!
Beneath the Olive and the Palm,
We’ll venture forth without a qualm,
Free in Naples or Nigeria
From thoughtless and ill-bred bacteria.
We thank you for your noble move,
It’s one the whole world should approve,
For Man still finds his brightest hope
in Education – and in Soap.