Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Wash Your Mouth Out With Soap

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 1, 2015

It wasn’t all that long ago that children had to give serious concern to the threat of having their mouth washed out with soap!  These days, the threat of having someone wash your mouth out with soap is said to draw attention to a rude or offensive word or comment that someone else has made.

In the past, a child’s mouth was washed out with soap for swearing, lying, biting, verbal disrespect, and using tobacco.  Although it’s supposedly no longer an acceptable form of punishment, in July of this year, a 23-year-old man in Great Britain was ordered to pay 100 GBP after washing a six-year-old’s mouth out with soap after the child kicked a pensioner’s walking stick and used foul language towards the senior.

In 2000, when President Bill Clinton announced that he hoped to make American debt free for the first time since 1835, Vice-President Al Gore added to that proclamation by saying that the U.S. should continue to pay down the debt even when the economy slows.  Economist and Nobel laureate Robert Solow had this to say about Mr. Gore’s pronouncement.

He should wash his mouth out with soap.

Some of you may be familiar with the movie, “A Christmas Story” in which nine-year-old Ralphie Parker, who had the misadventure of helping his father change a flat tire.  The family had gone out to buy the yearly Christmas tree after supper, and on the way home, the suffer a flat tire. While Idiomation won’t spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it yet, suffice it to say that things go awry, and Ralphie says:

Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!

The end result is that once home, safe and warm, Ralphie’s mother has him chomp down on a new bar of Lifebuoy soap.  And you’ll never guess who he blames for having said the word he had spoken.

The April 1937 edition of Boys’ Life magazine published a humorous cartoon of a little old lady, a pastor, and a parrot.  The little old lady was pleased to share with the pastor that she had washed the parrot’s mouth out with soap.  One can only wonder where the parrot heard the bad words (and from whom) that led to the punishment.

Boys' Life_1937
In the October 1916 edition of Young Men magazine (Volume 42) an article titled, “The Cordon of the Inner Circle” talked about adolescent males across the United States who were feeling the “tightening cordon of common high ideals for their school and their own thinking, speaking, and doing.”  These young men, through Bible study groups, were standing up for their principles and putting them across to their peers.

After creating public sentiment against profanity among their high school mates, members of one Inner Circle determined that the only remedy for one of the leaders was to “treat him like a kid.”  So they captured him and washed his mouth out with soap and water.

The magazine was a publication of the Young Men’s Christian Associations — or what we’ve come to know as the YMCA.

In 1892,a collection of child study pamphlets were collated and printed under the title, “Collection of Pamphlets on Child Study.”  In one particular case, a study conducted by Margaret E. Schallenberger of Stanford University addressed the fictional scenario of a child named Jennie whose actions were well-intended but ill-conceived.

The set-up was that Jennie, having received a beautiful new box of paints, painted all the chairs in the parlor one afternoon while her mother was away on errands.  Upon her return, Jennie ran to meet her, and said, “Oh, mamma, come and see how pretty I have made the parlor.”

The respondents were children and adolescents who were not yet parents, and they were asked what they would have said or done if the respondents were Jennie’s mother.  The study reported the following:

Often the feeling of revenge is shown in the piling up of punishments, as in the following:  “If I had been Jennie’s mother, I would of painted Jennie’s face and hands and toes.  I would of switcher her well.  I would of washed her mouth out with soap and water, and should stand her on the floor for half an hour.”

For those who are interested, of the 2,000 respondents under the age of six, 1,102 boys and girls said they would whip Jennie.  Out of 2,000 respondents asked who were eleven years old, 763 said they would whip Jennie.  And of 2,000 respondents who were sixteen years old, only 185 would whip Jennie.  The data from the study showed a decline (although it wasn’t a uniform decline) from year to year, and indicated that as children matured, they were less likely to consider whipping as a best method of punishment.

Interestingly enough, of those same children under the age of six, none considered explaining to Jennie why what she had done was wrong.  At eleven years of age, 181 thought to explain things to Jennie, and at sixteen, 751 thought that explaining what she had done wrong would be effective.

Back in 1832, the practice of putting soap in another person’s mouth as punishment was alive and well in England, not just in America.  The case in question was one of a man (identified as Mr. Smith from the town of Rugby) whose wife left him and took up with Frank Treen (from the town of Harborough just three miles away from the town of Rugby), with whom she had a child.  Frank Treen demanded support money to pay from the husband for his wife.  The husband thought he was obligated to give Frank Treen support money for his wife, so he did.

However, he was informed by another source that while his wife lived in adultery, there was no obligation on him to pay for her, and so he stopped paying.  But when his wife’s lover died, the courts determined that not only was he responsible for paying for his wife (whom he had not divorced during the time she lived with Frank Treen), but for the bastard child as well.  The information about the situation included the following factual commentary.

It appeared that he had not lived with his wife for about seven or eight years; that when they lived together, they were constantly quarrelling; and that one evening, on the man’s return home, he found his wife intoxicated; upon which, being a miller, he threw his wife into the mill pond.  Be he dragged her out again immediately.  However, perceiving a piece of kitchen soap lying on the ground near the spot, he crammed it into his wife’s mouth, saying, “She has had plenty of water to wash with, she ought now to have a little soap.”  However they lived together for a year after this fracas.

It could be said that somewhere along the line someone decided that because the adage was that cleanliness was next to Godliness, Proverbs 21:23 should be taken at its word.

Whoever guards his mouth and tongue, keeps his soul from trouble.

That being said, while the punishment was very real for a very long time, with the move to a kinder, gentler parenting approach has led to the rise of the expression as the actual activity disappears from parenting options.

Idiomation has been unable to put an exact date on when the threat moved into idiom territory.  Perhaps one of our readers or visitors has the answer and is willing to share it in the Comments Section below.

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