She’s No Longer Soaking in It: Palmolive Liquid Loses the Madge Manicure Hand

The new Palmolive Ultra Strength, sitting next to varieties of Dawn on Publix shelves in Florida in July, 2022.

Palmolive liquid, for 60 years associated with soft hands, has dropped the hand image from their premium packaging. For decades, the packaging of Palmolive liquid has shown a woman’s hand on the package, an indication of the softening qualities of Palmolive.

It’s all hands off the bottle as market leaders like Procter & Gamble’s Dawn have taken market share from Palmolive. In response, the brand’s parent, Colgate-Palmolive, has dropped the hand motif. Grease destruction today is a more valuable selling proposition than soft hands.

The packaging for Palmolive Extra Strength now stresses cleaning power, not hand softening. The Palmolive website describes Palmolive Ultra Strength as “the grease fighting dish liquid you know and trust. Our signature Ultra Strength formula instantly cuts through grease and works in 10 different ways to fight grease on your dirty dishes.”

There is also an Ultra Oxy Palmolive and an antibacterial version of the liquid. For the everyday folk, the hand is still present on the bottle of Palmolive Essential Clean, which does not even warrant a mention on the U.S. website. It is sold at discount stores only.

The packaging now reads “Tough on Grease. Gentle on Planet.”

Palmolive Dates from 19th Century

Palmolive is one of the oldest brands in the United States, and is half the name of its publicly traded parent, Colgate-Palmolive. The brand dates from 1898, when the B.J. Johnson Soap Co. introduced Palmolive Soap. The company later became Palmolive Peet, and merged with Colgate.

Palmolive sold as a discount soap. With its history it could be repositioned as a premium product.

Colgate-Palmolive still sells Palmolive bar soap, but has regrettably de-emphasized it, and relegated it to a Dollar Tree type existence. That is unfortunate, as quality bar soaps sell for a premium. After all, Palmolive was the pioneer in the category. There is no reason why Palmolive can’t operate in the arena of L’Occitane, Yardley, Swedish Dream Sea Salt, and Olay. Regionally, Florida’s Naples Soap Factory sells multiple varieties of bar soap.

Colgate-Palmolive has also let one of its other great brands collapse. Cashmere Bouquet, which dated from 1872, moved from grocery stores to discount stores, and finally disappeared. Cashmere Bouquet was the nation’s first milled perfumed toilet soap.

Madge Beloved in Advertising Pantheon

The chief selling point for Palmolive was that the liquid soap did good things for your hands while you cleaned dishes. The slogan was clear, and declarative. Kids re-enacted the ads in skits. Comedians parodied the commercials. Every American knew it by rote:

“Palmolive softens hands while you do dishes.”

In the commercials, the product was pitched by Madge the manicurist. Madge was as well known as Col. Sanders or Mr. Whipple, and beloved. The ad premise was simple and repeatable. There was Madge, sitting in a beauty shop. A customer comes in, complaining of dishwasher hands. Madge recommends Palmolive liquid. She then sticks the customers hand back in the green Palmolive, and when the customer trys to pull her hand out, she pushes it back in, and says “you’re soaking in it.”

A 1960s advertisement for Palmolive. The hand was once a dominant image on the bottle.

The ads featured actress Jan Miner, who created the role in 1972. Miner was a classically trained actress, but had fun with the role, and did it in dozens of dozens of scenarios. Said Miner:

“All the other girls were young and pretty, and I figured they must be looking for that type. But I was used to auditions, and I sat there figuring out a way to outdo the other aspirants. Then it dawned on me that the fact that I was the only older manicurist auditioning could be turned to my favor. By the time I auditioned, I had developed in my mind the basic character of Madge as I play her today.”

From Click Americana, VINTAGE MEMORIES
Palmolive Essential Clean, sold in discount stores, still has the hand, albeit much smaller. The premium brand, placed near Dawn, has ditched the hand.

Miner died in 2004, at age 87. The ads had been discontinued at least a decade before.

The hand model for much of the recent packaging was a Virginia model named Elizabeth Barbour. She modeled for the package in 1983. Barbour told BrandlandUSA back in 2009 that she still used Palmolive, and took pride in seeing the product around the world in her travels.

Said Barbour, “I do use Palmolive because it is a great dishwashing agent and it is honestly easy on the hands. What more could you ask? Incidentally, whenever I travel internationally I look to see if Palmolive is there. The bottle was in a tiny grocery store on Folegandros in Greece last summer. I’ve found it on sink ledges at restaurants on Caribbean islands. I’ve seen it in Rome. Palmolive dishwashing liquid — representing my funniest of little secrets — is used everywhere.”

Elizabeth Barbour, a Ford model hired by Colgate-Palmolive in the 1980s to model the hand used on Palmolive liquid.

Today, there is an advertising taboo against having women selling any sort of cleaning product. But only a few decades ago, there were female actresses who took the roles, and gave them enough humor and sass to make the ads go beyond stereotypes. There was for Nancy Wilson for Bounty, and Florence Henderson for Wesson. And of course Mrs. Olson for Folger’s.

But the reality was that women then, and now, were doing most of the buying, and the cleaning, and the cooking, and the advertising had to appeal to them.

Below, one of the classic Madge ads.

Madge would do well for a reboot, by the way.


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