Ordinary objects or incredible inventions?

By Emma Glaser and Sarah Rosenkrans
An old bottle of soap

According to a recent report by Mintel, a marketing research agency, few millennials use bar soap. Don't be alarmed, though. They aren't running around filthy. They just prefer liquid soap. Though we don’t typically think about it, liquid soap is an invention that has made quite the impact on our daily lives.

On August 22, 1865, William Sheppard filed one of the first patents for liquid soap, titled "Improved Liquid Soap." Sheppard's "new and Improved Liquid Soap" formula produced a soap with "superior detergent qualities . . . made at a small cost" and was "very convenient for use" It is quite possible that this pitch is why millennials seem to be favoring it today.

A bottle with a label. The label is yellowed with age and and has writing on it. The words "pharmaceut" and "Berlin" are evident. Inside the bottle is a brown liquid.

If we think about items like liquid soap as inventions we learn fascinating things. This is part of what we teach at the Draper Spark!Lab, a hands-on space at the National Museum of American History where kids learn about the invention process and create their own inventions. This helps them develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills by identifying problems, thinking about how past inventors have solved them, and then tweaking inventions to make them better.

A large room with a light up sign that says "Spark Lab". There are tables with objects on them. The edges of the room have cases with old objects.
According to Laurel Miller, Spark!Lab's manager, it is important for kids to think of objects as inventions.

"It is how we begin to see ourselves participating in the invention process," Miller said. "We may start out as just the user or observer, but it can quickly progress to how you would tweak something to make it better. Or, you learn more about the inventor behind the object, and something in the inventor's story resonates with you personally. Or, you notice that not all inventions are super high-tech."

Take liquid soap, for example.

Other inventors continued to tweak liquid soap's formula, including Kurt Stickdorn who, according to his 1933 patent, used coconut oil to make the soap more effective. Beginning in the early 1900s, liquid hand soap became popular in public spaces, but it took a long time—more than a century—for it to be a common item in homes. In 1980, Minnetonka, a small company, released the first successful mass-produced liquid hand soap, Softsoap, beating out larger companies by buying all the available soap bottle pumps. Few companies made the pumps in the U.S. and the patent was kept secret, so other companies couldn't easily get in the business. Minnetonka bought the whole supply of pumps, nearly 100,000,000, in hopes of building a loyal consumer base before other companies could break into the market. Their bold strategy was a success at first, but larger companies, such as Ivory, quickly developed their own liquid hand soaps and broke into the market within a couple of years. Since then, liquid soap has only gained popularity.

An advertisement announcing Ivory soap pumps now come in four colors: magenta, light blue, robin's egg blue, and tan.

Learning liquid soap's story—and stories of other inventions—helps us see that everyday objects can still be improved and improve our problem-solving skills.

"All of a sudden, invention isn't so mysterious and inventors aren't so intimidating," Miller said. "You see your own contributions and ideas as valuable, and you see invention as something that solves a problem."

Objects created out of cardboard, pipe cleaners, masking tape, brads and straws.

Examine an invention with a kid in your life

Even if you can't visit us here at the Draper Spark!Lab, you can get your kids involved in the invention process and thinking about the history of invention. Here are some tips to get you started. They can be used to help kids explore the objects around them and think about how they can be inventive problem-solvers, too.

Ask open-ended questions. This helps kids think about problem-solving and the different techniques that past inventors have used that they can also use to create inventions at home.

Be encouraging! Say "That's a great idea! What about . . .?" instead of telling kids they're wrong.

When thinking about what problem the object solves:

  • Why is this invention needed?
  • Who would use this invention?

When thinking about how the invention was created and how to improve it:

  • What is the invention made of?
  • How could you tweak this invention?

Ask a specific question about part of an object. This helps kids discover what an unknown object is or why an invention looks different from what they might expect. For example: 

  • Why do liquid soap bottles have a pump? 
  • Did soap bars need a pump bottle?

Don't worry if you get a "wrong" answer. Some of the best conversations we have at Draper Spark!Lab about objects have nothing to do with the invention's actual use. Even if kids don't know what the invention does, they're thinking creatively.

The next time you visit a museum or walk to the playground, think about the inventions around you and the stories they can tell. You might inspire a kid in your life to become more inventive.

Emma Glaser and Sarah Rosenkrans completed internships at the Draper Spark!Lab in 2017. Emma is working on her Masters in Museum Studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program at SUNY Oneonta and Sarah is working on her Masters in Museum Exhibition Planning + Design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.