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TIP: Murphy’s Oil Soap

Jun 22, 2016 | Expert's Corner | 0 comments

During my career refinishing furniture, Murphy’s Oil Soap has morphed from a regionally-available natural soap made with potassium hydroxide (similar to lye) and vegetable oil to a nationally-available furniture-care product. I watched this transformation happen and find the story fascinating.

I find it fascinating because furniture and woodwork don’t get dirty very often and washing them with soap and water when they aren’t dirty can only cause problems. Water gets under a finish through cracks and splits and causes the finish to peel. Everyone knows this at some level (just look at the peeling paint on building exteriors) so how did Murphy’s pull this off?

Some genius marketing!

Murphy’s was started in Ohio in 1889 and owned by the Murphy family until 1991 when the company was bought by Colgate/Palmolive. I called Murphy’s in the late 1970s as the transformation was happening. I spoke to a Murphy descendant and got the following story confirmed.

In the early 1970s, Homer Formby started selling his lemon oil by claiming that it replaced the natural oils in wood. Never mind that furniture woods don’t contain natural oils and that a finish is there to keep liquids out of the wood. Through 30-minute TV infomercials and thousands of appearances in shopping malls and at antique clubs, Formby was able to implant this false idea into the minds of most Americans as fact.

To wit: Wood contains natural oils that should be replaced regularly with a lemon-oil furniture polish, which is really little more than mineral spirits (petroleum distillate) and a lemon scent.

At the same time, manufacturers of other furniture-care products used advertising to convince people that they needed to “clean” their furniture often with furniture polish.

So along comes this small soap manufacturer that had found a local market selling a natural soap made from vegetable oil and alkali rather than animal fat and alkali, and its product was called “oil” soap! Someone realized that all they had to do was advertise the soap as a furniture-care product and people would draw the conclusion themselves that they were replacing the “natural oils” in wood at the same time they were cleaning their furniture.

Murphy’s Oil Soap was transformed from a natural soap to a furniture-care product, sold in the furniture-care section of supermarkets rather than in the soap section.

I hate it that people are so often duped into thinking they should wash their furniture on a regular basis with soap and water. But I stand in awe at the impact of marketing.