If you’re anything like me, mention of soap brand Pears reminds you of the wistful words of every 80s mother with a blonde daughter – ‘Darling, you should have been Miss Pears’. Certainly, had I won such an accolade, the rest of my life would have been spent speeding down the hill from that dizzy height. Fortunately for my ego and my mother’s social circle, I never made the grade.
But make no mistake, when it came to the big beauty players of the early 20th century, Pears was right up there. Only a brand with their kind of status and their resplendent bank account could have swept into the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-5 and showed everyone else up. Feast your eyes on the Pears Palace of Beauty.
Before we take a trip up those curved staircases to explore the Pears Palace of Beauty, it’s worth noting what the British Empire Exhibition was all about. This grand celebration of the nation’s territories was held in Wembley Park, Middlesex and officially opened on 23rd April 1924 by King George V. The park was filled with displays and pavilions all dedicated to different parts of the Empire and separated into different areas.
Map of the British Empire Exhibition
The British Library Board, Maps
Pears’ Palace of Beauty
Chemist and Druggist, 31 05 1924
One of these areas was the Amusement Park, 40 acres of “novelty and enchantment” and within this were many commercial kiosks, designed and built by Joseph Emberton and his team. Each kiosk represented an individual company within the Empire and included ones run by newspapers and cigarette companies. Other diversions in the Amusement Park included a life-sized model of Tutankhamun tomb[i].
But even Egypt’s poster boy Pharaoh couldn’t compete with Pears as the Palace of Beauty was the biggest kiosk of them all. Visitors would enter the white structure via two curved staircases leading up to a blue-domed gazebo, supported by columns. Once inside, they’d gasp at the richly decorated entrance hall, which included a fountain formed of peacocks, representing vanity[ii] and a gilt brazier of Pears’ Soap, “illuminated to display its famous transparency[iii].” A copy of a pair of sacred gates from the Mosque Teheran in Persian was erected in the Eastern Chamber[iv].
The main feature of the Palace of Beauty were the ten rooms, situated off the main hallway, in each of which was an actress representing a different beauty from the past dressed in historically correct clothes, engaged in “occupations of their day[v]” in either a room with period reproduction furniture or a garden as was most appropriate for their character. The occupations of their day varied but Cleopatra played a game of chess, modelled on an actual set in the British Museum, Miss 1924 played Mah-Jong[vii] and Helen of Troy plays knuckle bones[viii].
Each of these rooms was glass fronted to protect the actresses from over-enthusiastic customers. Of course, some gentlemen in those times subscribed to the Donald Trump-method of courtship. So the girls also had a chaperone to further protect them. There are few reports on the actual experience but there is a magnificently arch quote from one of the actresses on her experience.
“I never knew what it was like to be bored with admiration. I know I’m a pretty girl and I like the turn of men’s heads as I walk along the street, but this steady glare of admiring eyes bores me stiff. However, I have my diversions. I can lip-read a bit and often I know what the wife is saying of me – from her lips, and what her husband is thinking by his eyes[ix].”
As the kiosk was open for 13 hours a day the women worked weekly shifts (2 women to 1 character) of 10-1 then 7-11pm and then the next week 1-7pm. Admission was charged at 1 s/3 d per adult[x] and 8p for children and souvenir Pears’ soaps were available for purchase. During the exhibition, nearly 750,000 people visited the Palace of Beauty and it was widely held as one of the must-visit attractions.
The beauties, chosen to represent women “who were able to change the whole destiny of nations” and the specific characters Bubbles and the Spirit of Purity[xi], along with the names of the actresses (where known), were Helen of Troy (played by Gabe Gilroy, Helen Montague and Vera St Claire), Cleopatra (Ethel Warwick, Gaby Bilson), Scheherazade (Bobby Haseltine), Dante’s Beatrice (Constance Pendock), Elizabeth Woodville (Nora Baker, Sonia Alexander), Mary Queen of Scots (Pat Malone, Jean Cameron), Nell Gwynne (Marjorie Roache), Madame de Pompadour (Stella Pierres), Miss Siddons (Dido Carter), Miss 1924 (Ivy Brooker) (Miriam Roby)as well as Bubbles and the Spirit of Purity (Ida Mowbray).
Miss Dido Carter as Mrs Siddons
Pat Malone as Mary Queen of Scots
There was a three-month selection process needed to cast the actresses for this exhibition and 5000 women applied for the 24 roles available. The eventual ‘Pears’ Beauties’ were chosen by a Mrs Arthur Croxton[xii] and were managed by a Mr Klimpton. Mrs Croxton was very proud of what her girls represented and how they mostly wore their hair long – out of the 24 only one had their hair shingled and two were bobbed. Mrs Croxton said:
“If a woman cuts off her beautiful hair and has not a prettily shaped head I think it is madness. I have known women who have been shingled with disastrous effects. They have looked perfectly terrible[xiii]”
As you can see above we know quite a few of the names of these actresses but not everyone involved. 14 of them were featured in a postcard series published by Fleetway Press and available to purchase at the Exhibition.
We know others from a flyer advertising a Beauty and Fashion Parade held at the Exchange Cinema which advertised attendance from the “Mannequins from the Famous Palace of Beauty at Wembley.”
And we can glean a little bit more about the actresses from newspapers articles around the time as they received a small amount of notoriety for their roles, albeit mostly as the “Wembley Beauties” or their characters rather than as named actresses.
In a wonderful blog, there is a discovery of the scrapbook of Stella Pierres, who played Madame Pompadour as well as the winner of “London’s Venus Competition.” There is also a report of a bankruptcy case against Ethel Warwick (real name Ethel Maud Waller) in which we learned that she earned £5 a week for her role as Cleopatra[xiv]. Gabe Gilroy was later chosen as 1 of 5 winners of a prettiest girl competition and, as part of her prize, was given a screen test by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation with the potential for a 5-year contract[xv].
Beauty and Fashion Parade
There was also a series of adverts placed in newspapers that accompanied this exhibition and encouraged people to buy Pears’ soap. These adverts either asked their readers to consider what is beauty (and how Pears’ can help them achieve it) or focused on one of the characters from history featured at the exhibition.
Although the British Empire Exhibition reopened with the slogan “Brighter and Better” in May 1925 the Pears’ Palace of Beauty only lasted for that first season. With the re-open Pears’ changed their exhibition to something known as “The Golden Glide” which was described in newspaper reports as being a super escalator which would revolutionise transport. The Daily Mirror[xvi] notes that patents had been taken out on the design. A very enthusiastic report from the Daily Express in May 1925 described the whole as:
“visitors accommodate themselves in tubs shaped like the famous Pears’ soap tablets. Then the glide begins. The tubs with their human cargo glide away, they enter caverns, plunge down declines, thrust entrance through apparently thick walls and slip past the haunts of dragons, beneath waterfalls, through forest glades. There is over 1,000 foot of glide, 100,000 lamp, 140 tons of machinery and 35,000 gallons of water fall every hour [xvii].”
The Palace of Beauty itself was re-equipped, redesigned and moved to Luna Park, on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, in 1925. We learn that there were now 8 girls in the show and each had a new dress designed for them at the cost of £400 [xviii].
This glimpse behind the glamour of the Pears Palace of Beauty proves the company say this piece of marketing as worth the significant spend. While they looked impossibly fabulous, hanging around to be gawped at for your beauty isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds. So spare a thought for the ‘Wembley Beauties’ in their gilded cages of the Pears Palace of Beauty. Maybe being Miss Pears would have been just as rubbish.
Daily Express 30 12 1924
Advert for Pears’ Soap
Daily Express 21 05 1924
References and Further Reading
The Brent Magazine – page 130
[i] Daily Mirror 26.04.1924[ii] Daily Express 23.02.1924[iii] Chemist and Druggist 02.08.1924[iv] Daily Mail 06.04.1924[v] Daily Express 23.02.1924[vi] Daily Mail 01.03.1924[vii] Daily Mail 05.06.1924[viii] Daily Mail 05.06.1924[ix] Daily Mirror 16.05.1924[x] Chemist and Druggist 02.08.1924[xi] Daily Express 23.02.1924[xii] Daily Mail 01.03.1924[xiii] Daily Mirror 23.09.1924[xiv] Daily Mail 29.11.1926[xv] Daily Mirror 11.04.1925[xvi] Daily Express 21.05.1925[xvii] Daily Mail 05.07.1925