Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

January 26, 1935

On January 26, 1935, the Norfolk Journal and Guide featured an advertisement for Fan Tan Bleach Creme (click to view PDF). Bleach cremes included chemicals that limited the production of melanin in the skin. This Fan Tan advertisement visualized the transformative powers of bleach creme by contrasting a “Sad” woman whose skin was “too dark, ugly, [and] pimply” with a “Happy” woman with “whitened, clearer, softer, smoother skin.” The advertisement’s text reiterated this theme: “If you decide your skin is too dark or too pimply to let you be popular, if you really want an easier way to greater success in work and in society, or if you want to have the best looking complexion in your whole crowd of friends—clearer, whiter, far softer than you can imagine—then, surely, you should know and try this famous Frenchman’s beauty secret.

On the one hand, this advertisement underscores historian Roland Marchand’s argument about this era of advertising. In Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940, Marchand suggested that advertisers drew on social realities to develop simple parables that would help sell products. First impressions, for example, matter more in an increasingly urbanized country where people interact with strangers more often. On the other hand, this skin bleach advertisement speaks to a particular set of African-American social realities that Marchand’s book does not discuss in any detail. Historian Jacob Dorman’s article “Skin Bleach and Civilization: The Racial Formation of Blackness in 1920s Harlem,” is particular helpful in this regard. “The power of skin bleaching as a social text,” Dorman argues, “resides partly in the fact that it was part of an intimate, quotidian, private, and largely unremarkable ritual, something hundreds of thousands of people did between washing their faces and brushing their teeth. Bleaching was a form of self-fashioning, an autobiographical revision of race performed on the surface of one’s own body” (emphasis mine).61

Fan Tan advertised this Bleach Creme extensively in African-American newspapers in this era. See, for example:

“Lightening Your Skin to Any Shade You Desire,” Baltimore Afro-American, October 26, 1929 (click to view PDF)

“Whitened My Skin,” Baltimore Afro-American, January 5, 1935 (click to view PDF)

“Fan Tan Anne (cartoon),” Baltimore Afro-American, March 16, 1935 (click to view PDF)


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