Murphy’s Oil Soap: A Most Unusual Story

Murphy's Oil Soap

Murphy Oil Soap

During my career refinishing furniture, Murphy’s Oil Soap has morphed from a regionally available natural soap made with potassium hydroxide (similar to lye) and vegetable oil (instead of animal fat) to a nationally available and very popular furniture-care product. I watched this transformation happen and find the story fascinating.

I find it fascinating because furniture and woodwork don’t get dirty very often and washing them often with soap and water when they aren’t dirty can only cause problems. Water gets under a finish through cracks and splits and causes the finish to peel. Everyone knows this at some level (just look at the peeling paint on building exteriors) so how did Murphy’s pull this off?

Some genius marketing!

Murphy’s was started in Ohio in 1889 and owned by the Murphy family until 1991 when the company was bought by Colgate/Palmolive. I called Murphy’s in the late 1970s as the transformation was happening. I spoke to a Murphy descendant and got the following story confirmed.

In the early 1970s, Homer Formby started selling his lemon-oil furniture polish by claiming that it replaced the natural oils in wood. Never mind that furniture woods don’t contain natural oils and that a finish is there to keep liquids out of the wood. Through 30-minute TV infomercials and thousands of appearances in shopping malls and at antique clubs, Formby was able to implant this false idea of replacing natural oils into the minds of most Americans as fact.

To wit: Wood contains natural oils that should be replaced regularly with a lemon-oil furniture polish, which is really little more than petroleum distillate (mineral spirits) and a lemon scent.

At the same time, manufacturers of other furniture-care products were using advertising to convince people that they needed to “clean” their furniture often with furniture polish.

So along comes this small soap manufacturer that had found a local market selling a natural soap made from vegetable oil and alkali rather than animal fat and alkali, and its product was called “oil” soap! Someone realized that all they had to do was advertise the soap as a furniture-care product and people would draw the conclusion themselves that they were replacing the “natural oils” in wood at the same time they were cleaning their furniture. The company didn’t have to make this claim at all, and they don’t.

Murphy’s Oil Soap was transformed from a natural soap to a furniture-care product, sold in the furniture-care section of supermarkets rather than in the soap section.

I hate it that so many people are now washing their furniture with soap and water, but I stand in awe of the marketing that led them to think they should.

— Bob Flexner

Editor’s note – You’ll find all of Bob’s books in our store: “Understanding Wood Finishing,” “Flexner on Finishing” and “Wood Finishing 101.”

6 thoughts on “Murphy’s Oil Soap: A Most Unusual Story

  1. woodbadger

    I had taken over the operation of a kitchen remodeling business in early 2002. I received a phone call from a past customer, complaining about the finish wearing off her kitchen cabinets. Now these were finished with a conversion varnish by a large and trusted manufacturer. I checked the files and found the job had been done 3 years earlier,so beyond the manufacturers warranty,but I said I’d stop by and see what was wrong. When I walked in the kitchen my jaw it the floor! The doors and drawer fronts were missing around 75% of the finish and stain! What happened? The lady said that whenever she washed her floor, apparently daily, she’d also wash down the cabinets. She said it couldn’t be from that, she used Murphy’s Oil soap!

    1. Bob FlexnerBob Flexner Post author

      It makes no sense to me that Murphy’s Oil Soap, or any other soap for that matter, could damage conversion varnish. So something is wrong with that part of the story. I have seen Murphy’s Oil Soap remove some shellac, however. So I tested the soap, and it had a pH between 7 and 8. So it is slightly alkaline. Everyday dishwater detergents would be the safest to use because manufacturers are going to keep them pH neutral so people won’t have negative skin reactions.

  2. cagenuts

    I think a lot of people use this to clean their wooden floors which no doubt gets pretty dirty at times.

    Good story though, thanks for this.

    1. jglen490

      I agree that most wood items and products do not require regular cleaning with soap and water. There are exceptions like wood floors, as well as probably wood benches and chairs used in public spaces, and the occasional spillage in day to day living. Yes, if anything, the purpose of a soap is not to disinfect (except for some medical cleaners), but rather to remove oily residue in which germs and bad stuff thrives or that detracts from the natural beauty of the wood. Most of the time, all that is needed with wood is to dust it.

      Agree also that Murphy has a brilliant marketing strategy.

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