Ninety-nine and Forty-four One Hundredths Percent Pure

Mr. Gordon was my sophomore chemistry teacher. I thought he was old. I think I mostly thought that because he had gray hair that he’d let grow out a little long so a lock fell over his forehead. He must have been at least in his late fifties because he had retired from a commercial chemical venture, not a big corporation like Dupont but something smaller, in the Midwest. I pictured him in a bungalow house, sipping a Manhattan every night while reading a chemistry tome, but he probably had an actual life.

One day we were talking about the chemical composition of soap. The context must have been the nature of surfactants.

“All soaps on the market are made from the same basic ingredients,” he said.

Suzanne who sat at the end of my row of lab stations, raised her hand and pointed out that Ivory soap was different from other soaps. It had to be, because it floated.

“No, it’s not different,” Mr. Gordon said. “It floats because they whip it, which lets air bubbles into it.”

I was sure he was wrong. Air? Surely that wasn’t the reason.

Ivory was my soap, had been since I was a tot. I knew it floated. I knew the orange cake of Dial soap in the shower soap-dish didn’t float because I’d tried it. Didn’t Ivory float for a, well, spiritual reason? Wasn’t it purer than other soaps?

And, if my white bar of Ivory had air in it, did that mean that we actually got less soap than that stinky orange bar of Dial?

Suzanne was on the purity tack. “There has to be another reason,” she said.

“Other soaps have additives, like perfumes,” Mr. Gordon said. “Ivory is whipped. It’s a gimmick.”

Maureen, from closer to the front, spoke up now. “But Ivory’s pure. It’s ninety-nine and forty-four one-hundredths percent pure.”

Mr. Gordon nodded. “Sure it is. And pure what?”

We all stared, stumped. It was, you know, pure.

He ran his gaze across the classroom. “Pure soap,” he said.

I don’t remember much about whatever chemistry knowledge I should have absorbed in Mr. Gordon’s class, but in that moment, I had my first insight about the nature of advertising.

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