New York's godliest man teaches Americans to use toilet soap


William Colgate was born in Kent, UK, in 1783. His father Robert was a fierce defender of the ideas of the French Revolution.

When Robert was threatened with arrest for treason against the British Crown in March 1795, he was warned by his friend William Pitt, the then British Prime Minister.

Leaving behind all his personal belongings, he fled across the Atlantic with his wife and their 12-year-old son and settled on a Baltimore farm. Due to a dispute over the title to property, he lost the farm again.

From the age of 15, William worked at a Baltimore candle maker. In 1804 he found work at New York's largest candle merchant.

In those days, tallow, animal fat, even dogs and cats were used to make candles. A primitive, very greasy soap was created as a by-product. Two years later, the trader went bankrupt.

Colgate immediately started his own candle and soap business on Dutch Street, just behind Broadway.

With his first profit, he bought a new farm for his father. He decided to donate 10% of his profits to charity every year. A resolution he would stick to until his death.

By the time his three sons grew up, he was earning enough money to provide them with a private education.

The eldest, James Boorman, founded a bank on Wall Street; the second, Robert, became a manufacturer of white lead used in paints, and Samuel, the youngest, joined his father's firm at sixteen.

Around 1825, the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who wanted to develop better candles, discovered the composition of fats and oils. By combining separate substances with soda, potash and alkali, he developed new, less greasy soaps.

Samuel immediately saw the possibilities.

He convinced his father to buy French perfumes so that they could make their own toilet soap. William imported new vegetable and animal oils and installed machinery to mimic Chevreul's work.

He even used a steam engine as a heat source to better control chemical processes. By 1850—William was 67 and Samuel 28—the firm was supplying dozens of soaps, from the hardest laundry soap to the rarest luxury soap.

A new candle casting machine was commissioned for the production of candles. When Williams died in 1857, the house on Dutch Street had grown into a factory with a four-hundred-meter frontage, comprising two-thirds of a city block.

According to his biographers, Colgate had both sharp judgment and clear vision and never made mistakes commercially. He had an extremely cheerful temper and treated his employees as if they were his friends.

All his life William Colgate was a leader of the Baptist congregation.

He joined the church the year he became a soap maker and put a lot of money into the mission organization and its Bible society. For the last eight years of his life, he was treasurer of the American Bible Union, which he helped to found.

From 1820, he provided capital for a theological seminary in Hamilton, New York, which later evolved into a university. In 1890, its name was changed to that of its principal lender, Colgate University. He is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Aromatic toothpaste, initially still in jars, did not hit the market until fifteen years after his death. On the day of its centenary, the company offered a range of 160 types of toilet soap and 625 perfumes. In 1910 the factory was moved to Jersey City, where it is still located today.

The merger with Palmolive dates back to 1928.

Colgate Brands:

  • Ajax
  • Cadum Colgate
  • Javel La Croix
  • Lustra
  • palmolive
  • Pouss'Mousse
  • soup line
  • Tahiti