Palm oil and soap marketing

This image didn’t make the cut for Oil Palm: a Global History, but it’s remarkable for three reasons. First, it actually (or at least attempts to) depicts a West African person. Most Palmolive advertising pointed to a fictive Egyptian origin for palm oil, erasing West Africans from the commodity chain (see ad at bottom of this post for an example).

Second, it (attempts to) show an oil palm—but probably not the right species. Most soap ads featured familiar coconut palms, and coconut oil was an important soap ingredient. Oil palms and their fruit were unfamiliar to European and American consumers.

Third, the image shows the two-rope climbing system in operation. It’s a much better view than we get in contemporary photos. One rope loops around the tree to a foot stirrup, the other to a thigh loop. While it looks unbelievably awkward compared to the single-rope system (one rope around the tree and the climber’s waist), this system was faster and safer. It’s a bit like using ascenders on modern climbing gear.

The fruit cluster doesn’t look right, though. This artist may have been looking at another species, like a peach palm. The palm trunk is also too smooth and slender to be an oil palm, and the whole tree is out of proportion with the climber.

Palmolive advertisement. "A royal beauty secret from ancient Egypt"

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