History of Laundry Products

This timeline documents the history of modern synthetic detergent products, beginning with the sulfonation of castor oil in 1831, to the development of present day detergent products such as Tide. Through this timeline, you can explore how chemical, health, environmental, military, legal, media, and gender factors intertwine to form the history of modern detergent and related products such as dryer sheets and fabric softeners.

For thousands of years, water is all that was used for cleaning clothes. This changed to water and natural alkaline products, then soap and water, and beginning in the 1930s, synthetic detergents. The history of synthetic detergents began with the chemist Frémy, who in 1831 sulphonated olive oil and castor oil to create Turkey Red Oil, a forerunner for modern synthetic detergents. The most significant developments in synthetic detergents occurred during World War 1, in which there was a shortage of fats and oils and Germans focused their scientific and monetary efforts on discovering and producing compounds to substitute for soaps. This intensive research occured in the US, UK, and other countries throughout Europe. The end product was the production of a wide range of synthetic detergents for a variety of uses. Near the end of World War 2, consumer fabric softeners emerged in order to reduce static cling from synthetic fibers used in clothing during wartime. These fabric softeners eventually stimulated the development of dryer sheets in 1969, which allowed for the use of softeners in the drying process. ;xNLx;;xNLx;Proctor and Gamble (P&G) released their first synthetic detergent, Dreft, in 1933. While widely popular, it was not very effective for hard cleaning jobs. For fourteen years, P&G scientists worked on the secretive and laborious “Project X”, which sought to develop the first heavy-duty synthetic detergent. They finally succeeded through the addition of sodium tripolyphosphate as a builder, and in 1946 their product, Tide, went on sale and quickly became the leading laundry detergent in the US. This success resulted in the rapid diversification of Tide products to include extensions with different sizes, scents, and flavors, which bolstered P&G into a leading corporation. Fabric softeners and dryer sheets began incorporating technologies that released “fragrances” consisting of toxic Volatile Organic Compounds into the environment and technologies that infused fabrics with touch and motion-activated fragrances. P&G and its research were so highly regarded, in fact, that the US government asked it to build bombs in the World War II, and they were consequently responsible for building 25% of the bombs and shells used by Allied forces in the war.;xNLx;;xNLx;P&G’s success that arose through Tide was, however, accompanied by frequent controversy regarding the chemicals and subsequent health risks associated with the corporation’s laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets. In 2008, the University of Washington found that 99% of laundry detergents release some form of cancer-causing chemicals that are deemed legally hazardous and toxic by the EPA. The most notorious of these is 1-4 dioxane, which has been correlated with increased incidence of nasal cavity and liver carcinomas, raised blood pressure, and the development of moderate to severe liver and kidney disease in rats and mice. In 2012, a lawsuit was filed against P&G for violating levels of I,4 dioxane in their detergents and for not having a warning label. Although P&G, in 2013, agreed to significantly reduce the levels of I,4 dioxane in its laundry products, the corporation has continued to face lawsuits in recent years in regards to consumption of laundry products by children, chemical injuries from products, and deceptive packaging.;xNLx;;xNLx;This timeline allows viewers to explore the factors that led to the development of modern laundry products, trace the footprint detergents and related products have left, understand the health and environmental consequences of their choices, and consider ways in which to reduce the impact of the products they use/

1813-01-01 00:00:00

First Synthetic Detergent

Chemist Frémy sulphonated olive oil and castor oil to create Turkey Red Oil, the first synthetic detergent.

1907-03-01 00:00:00

Use of Enzymes

Researcher Otto Rohm began using enzymes to clean laundry

1910-06-01 00:00:00

Cotton Softeners Developed

Preparations known as cotton softeners were developed to improve the feel of these fibers after dyeing. A typical cotton softener consisted of seven parts water, three parts soap, and one part olive, corn, or tallow oil.

1914-01-01 00:00:00

World War I

Shortages of fats and oils incited research into synthetic detergents

1920-06-01 00:00:00

Early Forms of Fabric Softeners

Early forms of fabric softeners were developed to soften the roughness of dried cotton, felt especially on diapers, underwear, and handkerchiefs

1930-03-01 00:00:00

P&G Researches Synthetic Sources

P&G scientist Robert Duncan went to Germany to learn about a new process for making a laundry product from synthetic sources

1930-03-01 00:00:00

Discovery of Surfractants

P&G process engineer Robert Duncan discovered surfactants

1932-03-01 00:00:00

Soap Operas

P&G began radio show “The Puddle Family” to advertise products. This was one of the first soap operas.

1933-02-01 00:00:00


The first laundry detergent “Dreft”, which contained surfactants and alkyl sulfate was introduced by P&G

1934-03-01 00:00:00

1,4 Dioxane and Liver/Kidney Disease

Study showed that 1,4 dioxane could cause the development of moderate to severe liver and kidney disease

1939-03-01 00:00:00

World War II

P&G was so highly regarded that the US government asked it to build bombs in the war. P&G built 25% of the bombs and shells used by Allied forces in the war.

1939-06-01 00:00:00

Synthetic Fibers in WW2

Because of the need of natural fibers such as wool and silk for uniforms, the textile manufacturer DuPont started developing new synthetic fibers made from mineral materials. Synthetic fibers are cheaper and can be manufactured instead of found in nature, therefore they were more affordable during the harsh economic times of the war. The production of the new synthetic fiber, nylon, was also used as an alternative to silk to make parachutes

1941-02-01 00:00:00

Project X

P&G chemist David Byerly, who was working on “Project X”, discovered that sodium tripolyphosphate was the best builder to add to detergent and discovered that through using more builder than cleaning agent, clothes became clean and were left soft.

1942-03-01 00:00:00

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Firing Line

Interest in synthetic detergents grew, especially during the war, when fats were in short supply. Soap companies organized drives to get women to return used cooking fat so it could be used in soap making. A Walt Disney Film called "Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Firing Line" helped publicize the campaign.

1945-06-01 00:00:00

Static Cling

With the introduction of synthetic fabrics after World War 2, fabric softeners were developed to prevent the static cling

1946-02-01 00:00:00

Release of Tide Detergent

P&G developed and released the first heavy-duty detergent, Tide

1948-03-01 00:00:00

Liquid Preperation of Detergents

Lauric diethanolamides added to detergents for use in liquid preparations

1948-03-01 00:00:00

Tide Comes to Canada

Tide reached the Canadian market, where it steamrolled the competition

1950-03-01 00:00:00

Addition of Oxygen Bleach

Detergent with oxygen bleach released

1950-03-01 00:00:00

Diversification of Tide Products

P&G Canada found that since the levels of water hardness varied from province to province, there was a demand for geographically localized products. They therefore created three different Tide formulas for distribution in different regions

1950-03-01 00:00:00

Synthetic Detergents Replace Soap

Synthetic detergents outsold and replaced naturally produced soap

1951-03-01 00:00:00

Production of 1-4 Dioxane

Commercial production of 1,4-dioxane in the United States was first reported

1952-03-01 00:00:00

Tide on TV

Tide was advertised on TV for the first time, allowing its marketers to visually demonstrate the power of the product, and it was actually the first detergent to do a commercial

1957-06-01 00:00:00

Fabric Softener With Urea

Fabric softener containing urea inclusion compound of hydrogenated tallow quaternary ammonium salt filed by Unilever

1958-03-01 00:00:00

Release of Mr. Clean

Mr. Clean was launched and was one of many products to make use of Tide’s surfactant technology

1959-03-01 00:00:00

1-4 Dioxane and Blood Pressure

High blood pressure was reported in subjects who eventually died following exposure to high amounts of 1,4-dioxane

1959-03-01 00:00:00

Phosphate Builders

Essentially all laundry detergents in the U.S. contained between 30 - 50% phosphate builders

1960-03-01 00:00:00

Tide Advertised With Washing Machines

During the post-war economic boom, wringer washers were joyfully ditched for new-fangled automatic washing machines. P&G capitalized on this major shift by advertising Tide in conjunction with washer manufacturers

1960-03-01 00:00:00

P&G Releases Salvo

Salvo, a giant tablet of detergent, was released by P&G. It was a hard tablet of detergent that housewives were supposed to toss in with the clothes. The idea behind Salvo, like Tide Sheets, was to offer consumers a premeasured amount of detergent. But Salvo’s problem was simple: it didn’t dissolve

1960-03-01 00:00:00

Modifications to Tide Formula

As rival brands reached the market, Tide’s scientists made subtle changes to its formula, subsequently touting ‘Improved Tide’ and ‘New Intensified Tide.’ The packaging and the ‘washday miracle’ message remained unchanged

1960-06-01 00:00:00

Liquid Fabric Softeners

Several major marketers, including Procter and Gamble, began selling liquid fabric softener compositions for home use

1961-06-01 00:00:00

Ultra Downey Liquid Fabric Softeners

Ultra Downy introduces a liquid fabric softener that is twice as concentrated as the competition, resulting in greatly improved performance

1965-03-01 00:00:00

Eutrophication from Detergent Products

US rivers and lakes began rapidly turning green and choking with aquatic plant growth due to high levels of phosphorus from phosphates used in laundry detergents

1965-03-01 00:00:00

Tide Profits

Tide provided half of P&G’s profits

1965-03-01 00:00:00

Scientific Community Seeks to Address Eutrophication

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Research Council (NRC) appointed a Planning Committee on Eutrophication in recognition of growing public concern over eutrophication of lakes, streams and estuaries. Many speakers at the NAS-NRC symposium recommended phosphorus reduction in wastewater through use of nonphosphate detergents

1965-06-01 00:00:00

Fabric Softener with Improved Product Stability and Freeze Discovery

P&G files patent for free-flowing liquid fabric softener which has an improved product stability and freeze recovery; “In addition, a highly active and readily dispersible product provides the housewife with ease of application and enables her to achieve maximum softening effects with a minimum of product. “ “Another disadvantage of the usual liquid softener is the tendency of the compositions to be very viscous unless the active softening ingredients are present only in low concentrations. A viscous product that is not readily pourable causes great inconvenience to the housewife. But a dilute composition that has satisfactory pourability generally requires large unwieldy product containers in order to provide the consumer with a reasonable number of effective softening applications per container.”

1968-03-01 00:00:00

Tide XK released

This was the first US detergent to use enzymes. It provided an easier way to remove tough stains such as food and blood

1968-03-01 00:00:00

Phosphates in Lakes

The nation's lakes and streams were getting more polluted each day, and phosphate detergents were the primary reason. Half the phosphorus input to Lakes Erie and Ontario came from municipal and industrial sources, of which 50% to 70% came from detergents.

1968-06-01 00:00:00

Quaternary Ammonium Compound Added

Levers brothers patent for an improved fabric softener is disclosed comprising a mixture of a softener such as a quaternary ammonium compound or an imidazoline with an antiyellowing agent which is a complex of C12 to C22 alkyl alcohol and C12 to C19 alkylsulfate

1968-06-01 00:00:00

Fabric Softener Compatible with Detergents

Unilever patent for a fabric softener composition which is compatible with either non-ionic or anionic detergents as well as cationic materials is disclosed. The composition comprises a combination of a cationic softener and a mono fatty trialkyl quaternary ammonium dialkyl phosphate.

1970-03-01 00:00:00

Removal of NTA from Detergents

The U.S. Surgeon General asked manufacturers to remove NTA, and P&G compiled

1970-03-01 00:00:00

Advertisements with "Real Women"

Tide was the first detergent to feature “real women” instead of celebrities, with TV spots featuring real women refusing to swap their box of Tide for twice as much of another, unnamed detergent

1970-03-01 00:00:00

Paget’s Disease

The same calcium-delivery technology that enables Tide to soften hard water was employed in the late ’70s in the development of the drug Didronel (etidronate disodium) for use in the treatment of Paget’s Disease

1970-03-01 00:00:00

Canada Water Act

Canada enacted the Canada Water Act, which called for an immediate reduction to 8.7% phosphorus in laundry detergent, with a further reduction to 2.2% phosphorus by the end of 1971. They hoped that their legislation would stimulate the U.S. to do the same.

1970-03-01 00:00:00

P&G Reduces Phosphorous

P & G had replaced 25% of the phosphorus with NTA in a third of their detergents with hopes of replacing 300,000,000 lbs of phosphorus per year by 1972

1974-03-01 00:00:00

1-4 Dioxane as a Carcinogen

Study showed that presence of 1,4-dioxane in drinking water increased incidence of nasal cavity and liver carcinomas in rats, liver carcinomas in mice, and gall bladder carcinomas in guinea pigs

1974-03-01 00:00:00

Sexism in P&G

Women employees of P&G gathered each week to plot how they would take a stand against the company’s sexist ways

1974-06-01 00:00:00

Patent for Dryer Sheets

P&G patent for process for softening fabrics in a clothes dryer corn prising adding to the dryer said fabrics and a length or sheet of an absorbent substrate having an absorbent capacity of 5.5 to 12, impregnated with a fabric softener having a softening point of 100 F. to 170 F. and operating Said clothes dryer with a drying temperature ranging from about 75 F. to about 170 F. Use quaternary ammonium compounds

1976-06-01 00:00:00

Fabic Softener Without Yellowing

Colgate-Palmolive Co. patent for a method and composition for imparting softness to textiles without yellowing by utilizing a borohydride-containing composition either in the form of a fabric-softening quaternary ammonium salt and an alkali metal borohydride or the corresponding quaternary borohydride.

1978-03-01 00:00:00

1-4 Dioxane and Detergent Patent

Patent filed by Monsanto Company to use 1-4 dioxane in detergent

History of Laundry Products

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