Monday, August 20, 2018

Legend of James Pyle and Horace Greeley ~ 52 Ancestors #33

I am participating in this year's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks writing challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Each week has an optional writing prompt and this week's writing prompt is Family Legend.

I thought I'd revisit my second great grandfather's invention of powdered soap (known as Pyle's Pearline Soap) and an anecdote that was repeated in several obituaries for him upon his death in 1900.

James Pyle (1823-1900) was my second great grandfather and by 1870, he was enumerated as "Manufacturer of Soap" in the 1870 U.S. census. I shared his history at Occupations of My Ancestors ~ James Pyle.) There are many records: census, city directories and others, that relate his success in manufacturing and selling what became known as Pyle's Pearline Soap.

According to the legend, James Pyle learned about the value of advertising when he became acquainted with Horace Greeley, founder in 1841 of the New-York Daily Tribune:
Mr. Greeley had sought to secure his "ad" for some time. Finally he is reported to have said in substance: "Here is the rate card. Use whatever space you wish for one year. If at the end of that time you find that it has paid to advertise, you may pay for whatever spare you have used. If it hasn't paid, you need not pay." The space was duly paid for. ["Death of James Pyle," The New York Times, 21 January 1900, p. 3, col. 2.]
I thought I'd explore advertisements for his soap (and earlier products) at, which includes many New York City newspapers in its digitized collections. I searched for Pyle Soap and wondered if this was the first advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune?

Advertisement for Pyle's O. K. Soap, New-York Daily Tribune, 23 November 1861, p. 1, col. 6 (bottom of the right column); image, ( : accessed 20 August 2018).

However, the legend of the agreement with Horace Greeley may not be true.

At, I found another advertisement for Pyle's O. K. Soap in a different newspaper in November 1861 and many more in 1862 in different newspapers, not just the New-York Daily Tribune, so he wasn't advertising solely in the Tribune.

In fact, he started advertising in newspapers years before 1861.

In the 16 March 1850 issue of the Brooklyn Evening Star, James Pyle, of No. 158 Nassau Street, New York, was advertising "Chinese Lustral Washing Fluid." Based on a few other advertisements, it appears that in the 1850s, he was working as an agent for other manufacturers.

Within a few years, he was doing the manufacturing himself.

The following advertisement for his "Dietetic Saleratus" appeared in both The New York Times and the New-York Daily Tribune on December 19, 1856. (Note that the New-York Daily Tribune can also be found at the free website, Chronicling America.)

Advertisement for James Pyle's Dietetic Saleratus, New-York Daily Tribune, 19 December 1856, p. 3, col. 1; image, ( : accessed 20 August 2018).

He was advertising not only in New York City, but in Rutland, Vermont.

"The Great Eclipse" (Advertisement for James Pyle's Dietetic Saleratus), Rutland [Vt.] Weekly Herald, 11 July 1861, p. 5, col. 4; image, Chronicling America ( : accessed 20 August 2018).

As I continued to explore the online newspaper websites, I find that he was advertising James Pyle's Dietetic Saleratus in Boston, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and even Chicago.

Then by late November 1861, he was advertising his O. K. Soap (as noted above). Advertisements for the James Pyle O. K. Soap continue until about 1878.

Pyle's Pearline can be found in advertisements from 1878 to 1900. The variety of the ads is incredible. The earliest ad I found that mentions Pearline is in May 1878. This one is from the Tribune:

Advertisement for James Pyle's Pearline, New-York Daily Tribune, 1 July 1878, p. 8, col. 6; image, ( : accessed 20 August 2018).

One of the last advertisements that I found is the following:

"Doing Stunts," (Advertisement for Pearline Soap), The [New Orleans, La.] Times Picayune, 23 November 1900, p. 11, Cols. 5-6; image, ( : accessed 20 August 2018).

It appeared that James Pyle discovered advertising on his own. I'm not sure if it's possible to determine how the story about him and Horace Greeley evolved (though I've found there's usually some truth to every legend).


  1. Fun seeing these old-time ads. Maybe Pyle later decided it would be advantageous to align his name with that of Horace Greeley and spread the story himself or to his family?

    1. Marian - I think you may have something there about aligning his name with that of Horace Greeley. And yes, old-time ads are so much fun to see!
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Ok - here are two more family legends around Our soapy great grandfather: no 3!
    1. He was the first to ‘powder’ soap, after watching maids have to work hard to break up the bars.
    2. He sold his soap business when other powdered soaps began putting tea cups and tea towels into the boxes of soap as incentives to buy their brands.
    3 He invented/had a copyright for O K.

    I will leave these for your worthy research down the pike! I appreciate having you as our very own family genealogist! You are so thorough!! Thank you!

    1. Harriet - thank you for the reminder about your #1. #2 - as far as I can tell, he owned the soap business until his death. I believe it was the widows of the sons (James Tolman Pyle and William Scott Pyle) who sold the business after their deaths. And yes, he held the copyright for O.K.
      Thanks for your comment (and your wonderful memory!)