Chances Are, the Clothes You’re Wearing Right Now Have Been Washed in Tide

How the detergent has reigned for 68 years

Headshot of Robert Klara

Assuming you're not naked as you read this, there's a 40 percent chance that whatever you're wearing has been washed in the last week, and a 38 percent chance that the detergent it sloshed around in was Tide.

Photo: Nick Ferari

Even if you're really into clothes, it's hard to dig something like laundry detergent. And yet Tide, that orange box of soap from Cincinnati, has somehow transcended the chemical category to become a comfort brand. It has over 4 million fans on Facebook. There’s a YouTube video of a kid who wants Tide for Christmas. There are families that have used Tide for generations. Said Brand Union executive strategy director Veb Anand: "Tide is so firmly rooted that it’s been difficult for any competitor to displace."

How did we come to be a Tide nation, anyway? The answer to that question is part history and part olfactory.

Prior to World War II, Americans hand-washed their clothes with ordinary soap, a chore made worse by the fact that soap didn't dissolve well in hard water. The search for a synthetic detergent to solve this problem had frustrated chemists for years—until one day in 1945 when Procter & Gamble researcher Dick Byerly (who'd devoted 14 years of his career to the quest) mixed one part alkyl sulfate with three parts sodium tripolyphosphate. The compound lifted out stains like magic. "When he showed it to the management, [P&G president] Richard Deupree was amazed," said company historian Shane Meeker. P&G rushed "Product X" into production. Company legend holds that Deupree came up with the brand name while sitting on the beach. "He noticed how clean the sand looked when the tide rolled out," Meeker said. Product X became Tide.

Tide was billed as a "wash day miracle," but the real miracle was the marketing. Home washing machines were just coming onto the market, and P&G arranged to drop a sample box of Tide into them—a practice that continued well into the 1970s. Many housewives who tried Tide never tried anything else, which goes a long way to explaining the brand’s continued dominance. "It's been passed from mother to daughter—and to sons,” said P&G fabric care spokesperson Anne Candido. "People think, 'My mom used it, so I can use it.'"

But there's another reason Tide still rules the detergent shelf—that fragrance. As Brand Union's Anand explains, the smell of fresh laundry is an immensely comforting thing. "Tide is like coffee," he said. "It’s the smell of home, and that’s quite valuable."

Indeed it is. Today, Americans spend $2.8 billion yearly—more than they do on Halloween candy, more than on weight-loss products—on Tide.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.