TeaHere in London is a tall black cabinet that holds 150 bottles and 300 in the blink of an eye. It’s always strange to see part of my childhood in a museum, but I never expected to be reminded of my death by a yellow plastic bottle molded into the spikes of Bart Simpson’s head. “I had that! On the side of my bathtub 20 years ago!” I thought of that earlier this year when I saw the character-shaped bubble bath bottles on display at the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill. The exhibits are just one part of the museum’s journey through time, a pitstop between ’80s magazines and ’00s snacks. Soaking in the rot of Super Mario’s belly, the bloom of Aladdin’s plastic pants and the bright red dots of Pingu’s beak, I couldn’t remember which bottles I had and which I just wanted — but I realized they were a Bars were everywhere, and now they are nowhere to be seen.
We were (unknowingly) in the middle of the bubble bath boom at the turn of the millennium. Characters from every show, movie, and video game were brought to life as hollow novelty figurines that were cut to reveal the foamy mix from within. It is impossible to exaggerate the scale of the thing: there was Mask, Quasimodo, Barbie, the Little Mermaid, Fred Flintstone and Raymond Briggs Snowman (as well as every possible person – Bat, Action, Spider, He). Who was behind this moment in pop culture history? Why was there a golden age of bath toys? Did the bubble burst? It all starts with Robert Beacham.
When he was 21 and worked at a London hosiery company, Beacham, now 71, did some work: “I really liked women. I love children. i like the smell. After studying philosophy in America but failing to obtain a degree, Beacham spent two years in hosiery before realizing it: “You know what? You’re not going to make a fortune here. He left and combined his love of women, children and smells into a new business, the Château de Bubble, a bath mix sold at Wine Carafe.
During his first year of business in 1975, Beacham sold 12,000 bottles for about £39,000, but as his company grew, he kept in touch with friends in America. “I started getting letters from my friends in America and they said, ‘Robert, have you heard of War Star or Star Roles or Star World or whatever?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?'” recalls Beacham. the very first star wars The film was released in the US in May 1977, but had not yet reached the UK. Beacham smelled an opportunity.
Here’s the story as he tells it, and it’s great to tell it another way. About 45 years ago, Beacham broke into the offices of 20th Century Fox manager Peter Beale in London. He told her that he knew about the upcoming star wars Thin layer; He said that he wanted to take his own bubble bath inside the characters of the film. Beacham came up with the idea in Boots at Piccadilly Circus when he realized there weren’t many toiletries for children (Beacham’s father, incidentally, was in the toy business).
As Beacham tells it, Beale’s “eyes lit up” when he heard the idea; He said bubble bath businessman could premiere star wars in London. Beacham invited representatives from major stores and the press, but when he introduced himself and his Darth Vader and R2D2-sized bottles before the film: “I was met with complete and utter silence.”
Thankfully, the film acted as Beacham for him. Sales reps enamored of receiving Beecham’s products – their range was released just in time for Christmas. writing in daily Mirror On December 22, 1977, columnist Keith Waterhouse recommended swapping fake-standard gifts for Beacham’s goods: “I suggest for once you get on the ball and invest in star wars Bath salts,” he joked. “Bubble Bath Market didn’t know what happened to it,” says Beacham.
Beacham was not The first to make character bubble baths – In the 1960s, Bugs Bunny-shaped “sockies” were popular in America, and even the Beatles were bottled. Matty, the much less intricately shaped sailor soap line still going strong today, was also on shelves in the UK when Beacham had the idea. But Beacham’s company, London’s Grosvenor, came at exactly the right time: the dawn of licensing as we know it, when everything began to slap on everything.
Gary Little, who became Grosvenor’s creative director in 1994, says, “I was brought in because I’m a little crazy and I just want to try things that have never been done before.” Beacham got a little help securing a Disney license, and before long, “we had all the major licenses” – Beatrix Potter, Popeye, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pokemon, Harry Potter. “Barbie, as far as I was concerned, was my queen,” says Beacham—she may be reinvented annually in a different outfit. In contrast, Hulk Hogan was a flop. “One minute he was on top of the pops and the next minute, he was busted for steroids.”
Little says he “had a free rein to do and make whatever I wanted”—he received a letter from a bar. simpsons Producer Matt Groening said his own bath had some limitation. Before long, Grosvenor was releasing 300 products each year.
It was a daunting task at times. When designing the Pocahontas bottle, Little was “taken away” with carving the intricate sculpture and forgot how many bubble baths he needed to fit inside. Pocahontas were designed to dive off a cliff, “so the rock started getting bigger” to catch the liquid. Little’s wife, Helen, who worked on the production at Grosvenor, joked, “It was like a mountain when we finished.” (The couple now live in Berkshire and have not disclosed their ages; they say they are “past retirement” and she says “I’m younger than them.”)
At one point, hyper-realistic sculptor Ron Mueck helped create the Grosvenor design—as did Timothy John Staffel, a model maker who put together the band that would go on to become Queen. “There was loads and loads and loads of clay in there,” says Yve Husson, 59, who designed bottles for Grosvenor in the ’90s. Husson would create his designs and a sculptor brought the prototype to life with clay in the back room. “Obviously, everything is now 3D sculpted on a computer,” she says.
The production process was complex and ever-changing. Beacham worked with a company in Wales before switching factories in China. Originally, the bottles were hand-crafted, later injection-molded with different colored plastics. “Some of our models only require eight to 10 different tools to make one bubble bath,” Little says.
Hertfordshire-based designer Elena Jackson, 49, who worked at Grosvenor in the early 2000s, recalls the challenges of designing with production limitations in mind. “Her arm is like this because either way, it would be very fragile,” Jackson says, showing a Snow White bottle with her hands firmly clasped under her chin. Because the licensors had strict rules about the precision of the scale of the design, Jackson could not make it an arm wider or a foot thicker to fit more product in a bottle. Another problem was making sure the bottles stood up. The princesses were fine—they had big skirts—but for superheroes, Jackson had another trick. “You had to use a cape,” she says.
Someone who appreciated the hard work was 55-year-old Beverly Hayworth, an NHS worker from Manchester who started collecting character bubble baths 30 years ago. Today, he has over 800 in storage. In the ’90s, Hayworth took advantage of Boots’ 3-for-2 deals to stock up on bottles—she would use the product and ship empty containers to shoppers around the world. “I was clear-cutting,” she laughs.
Hayworth placed advertisements in newspapers and magazines to connect with other collectors and negotiate trades. “I made friends with people from Australia, America, Canada, Japan and Europe,” she says. “It’s nice to be at the center of it.” Once, Hayworth traveled with her husband to Holland to meet another collector couple and trade them for a German Batman bottle. “The first time we met, we went to his house and sat with dictionaries, laughing and talking to each other, and the only thing that connected us were our toys,” Hayworth says.
Hayworth loved collecting bottles because they were “colorful and vibrant.” He also enjoys hunting rare models like a Roger Moore bottle from the ’70s. His passion culminated in his writing and printing 150 copies of a book: Collectbulls: Guide for Bubble Bath Characters, Little keeps his copy in hand.
Hayworth’s late husband fell ill in the 2000s and lost interest in her. He didn’t notice when the characters started disappearing from the shelves. In 2002, toy company Hasbro bought Grosvenor; Beacham was officially the world’s first bubble bath millionaire (in 2015, he caused a stir at his home with plans to build London’s largest domestic basement). The Littles worked for Hasbro, but claimed it was struggling to understand the market, so they started their own toiletries business, Kokomo, in 2010.
The trouble was, times had changed. Four things explain the disappearance of character bottles: the recession, the growing eco-consciousness, the explosion in popular culture, and the toothbrush. Little says of the 2007 recession, “Retail has changed and it has never changed back—character bottles have gone up in price, so they weren’t a cheaper option for parents than toys.” Yes, that whole plastic thing.
“Back in the day you never thought about landfills,” says Helen, but in recent years, “at a dinner party, I would have felt less embarrassment if I said I was a heroin pusher.” The industry meant Littles struggled to choose from 100 new character licenses introduced annually. Meanwhile, in the UK, a 2019 survey found that most Brits prefer showers to baths. By the time Little sold Kokomo in a management buyout earlier this year, the licensed toothbrush business was up 40%—after all, everyone needs to brush their teeth.
maybe it’s not a bad thing That I can’t get a bubble bath bart anymore, that today’s kids go along with a normal-sized bottle slapped with Elsa stickers. But those involved in the boom mourn the loss of a creative era. “Everybody in the ’90s was very eager to be as different as possible,” says artist Husson. “Now people don’t want to take risks, every store wants every other store to have the same one, and there’s no design anymore.” Beacham recalls the time-consuming processes of making the Game Boy bottle—he sat in the factory for “god know how long” designing “rubber nipples” that would wind up making an actual, playable game. shoots down small jets.
The bubble bath at the Museum of Brands isn’t London’s only shrine to bottles. In Beacham’s garage, there’s shelf after shelf with her products. Of the Hasbro acquisition he says, “Unfortunately, the bare bones of what I struggled to produce have been demolished inside a corporation, but his company lives on in their mini-museum. The Beechams Bubble “I had a wonderful time and a wonderful life,” says of being a bath tycoon.