Stupid Question ™
Jan. 7, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: What’s the origin of the term “soap opera”?
A: The serialized domestic dramas we know as soap operas began on Chicago radio with 1930’s “Painted Dreams.” As the genre exploded in popularity, the only slang term for it was “washboard weepers,” from the idea that housewives were moved to weep into their laundry while listening.
And that laundry was important stuff to advertisers. In fact, the serials began as pure product-placement marketing devices. They were so good at selling home products that in 1933, Procter & Gamble created its own serial, “Ma Perkins,” on local radio.
Introduced as “Oxydol’s Own ‘Ma Perkins,’” it mentioned P&G’s Oxydol soap 20 to 25 times in each 15-minute episode. P&G followed up with Ivory’s “Road of Life,” Duz’s “The Guiding Light” and Tide’s “Life Can Be Beautiful.” Writers were happy to write products into scripts, the content of which was often censored by sponsors.
With the advent of television in 1949, Procter & Gamble set up P&G Productions to create new shows, and 10 years later had 12 serials on the air. Today, it continues to produce “The Guiding Light,” “Another World” and “As the World Turns,” as well as prime-time fare such as “Sabrina, The Teenage Witch.”
On Aug. 24, 1939, a writer in the “Christian Century” magazine referred to the serials as “soap tragedy,” noting that the shows appeared only “by the grace of soap.” On Nov. 13 of that year, “Newsweek” called them “soap operas”—placing the term in quotes to indicate its newness.
This explains the “soap” part. But I’ve found sources to be confused about the “opera” part. Some say the phrase is an ironic comment on the show’s domestic content; others says it’s a reference to their high melodrama and use of crescendoing musical interludes.
It’s my idea that the “opera” part comes from a variation on “horse opera,” a phrase coined in 1857 as a sarcastic term for trick-horse shoes at carnivals. By 1927—12 years before “soap opera” was coined—“horse opera” was a slang term for B-grade Western movies.
Since the soaps were usually written about in disparaging terms in the early days, it makes sense that the derisive “horse opera” terminology was revamped into the suitable “soap opera” moniker—a formulation used again in 1949 to coin “space opera” to describe B-grade sci-fi movies.