The Secret of Health, with the Story of the Missing Bag is a combined story and lay medical tract that was published by Lever Brothers Ltd. (which later became Unilever) and is essentially an extended advert for Lifebuoy Soap. It is one of the many Wellcome Library books digitised as part of the UK Medical Hertiage Library project, that are now available online at the Internet Archive.
The Story of the Missing Bag, is a piece of charmingly trite melodrama in which a poor-yet-virtuous orphan turns her life around, escapes a cruel employer and marries a gentleman – all thanks to her timely discovery of Lifebuoy carbolic soap.
A key aspect of Victorian melodrama is that the virtuous are ultimately rewarded and the wicked are punished. Personal hygiene and moral hygiene often went hand in hand, and in this story, cleanliness is next to Godliness: our heroine’s high moral principles (and endorsement of the soap) are contrasted with her ex-employer’s scheming, cruelty and reliance on peptonised teas.
Carbolic acid – phenol – had been promoted as a surgical antiseptic since the 1870s, but Lifebuoy was the first carbolic soap to be mass-produced for public use. The Secret of Health is keen to promote the ways in which it can be used around the home: when treating a relative with typhoid, cholera or septicaemia, for instance.
In order to explain Lifebuoy’s ‘magical’ powers, the book introduces germ theory to a lay readership. This had gained credence in the 1880s, but was still unfamiliar to some. The book describes germs as an “[e]nemy who lurks within the shadow of our homes,” which must be driven out as wolves were once driven from British woodlands.
The term ‘soap opera’ derives from ongoing radio serials, which were frequently sponsored (and sometimes produced) by soap companies in the 1930s. The Story of the Missing Bag predates soap operas by decades, but its sense of melodrama is pure soap.
Authors: Deborah Leem, Digitisation Project Coordinator, and Cassidy Phillips, Support Services Assistant, at the Wellcome Library.