Born in Hollingbourne, Kent, U.K, on January 25, 1783, William was the son of Robert and Sarah Colgate. The father Colgate, known for his sharp intellect and strong political views, was a farmer, politician, and an American sympathizer, whose outspoken support for the American Colonies lost him governmental favor, and forced he and his family to have to abandon their farm in Shoreham, Kent under fear of death and imprisonment. Boarding a ship for America in March 1798, they arrived in Baltimore, M.d.
In the new country, the elder Colgate soon formed a partnership in soap and candle making, with young William watching and helping. However, just two years later, this partnership dissolved and the elder returned to farming, and simultaneously moved his family to Delaware County, NY. However, William, just 19 years-old, ventured into the soap industry by himself. But, awash with capital challenges, this soap business failed even faster than the first one, in just half the time–one year.
Despite the two failed soapy ventures, and still not refusing to “throw in the towel,” young William determined to try again–but this time to try from another location –New York City. Traveling to New York City in a canal boat, William told the boat’s captain about his soap ambitions. The captain, a Christian, responded with encouragement: “Someone will soon be the leading soap maker in New York. You can be that person. But you must never lose sight of the fact that the soap you make has been given to you by God. Honor Him by sharing what you earn. Begin by tithing all you receive…. Be a good man. Give your heart to Christ. Give God all that belongs to Him. Make an honest soap. Give a full pound.”1
When he arrived in New York City, in 1804, William found work as an apprentice to a soap-boiler, at the tallow chandlers Slidel and Company.1 It was here William watched the methods of his employer, noting the employer’s mismanagement and waste, along with other useful lessons. He took to heart what the book of Proverbs says about heeding instruction, even if that instruction meant learning what NOT to do. Two years later, when the company disbanded, his apprenticeship ended. However, he had been attentive and ambitious, so instead of an end, William was able to launch himself into the soap industry with acumen, solid contacts, and promise. In 1806, William formed his own starch, soap, and candle business in Manhattan. The William Colgate and Company was met with success from the start and within six years, he added the manufacture of starch to his laundry-soap business. Later, he also produced hand soap and a variety of toilet and shaving soaps.1 By 1820, he launched a starch factory across the Hudson in Jersey City, making him one of the most prosperous men in New York City.
By the 1840s, the firm began selling individual cakes of soap in uniform weights. In 1872, Samuel Colgate the son of William introduced Cashmere Bouquet, a perfumed soap. In 1873, the firm introduced its first toothpaste, aromatic toothpaste sold in jars. By 1908 they initiated mass selling of toothpaste in tubes.2
Today, Colgate-Palmolive is a household name as well as a fortune-500 company. Modern brands of Colgate-Palmolive include many cleaning lines such as: Ajax, Baby Magic, Bambeanos, Cibaca, Cold Power, Colgate, Darlie, Fresh Start, Hill's Pet Nutrition, Irish Spring, Kolynos, Lady Speed Stick, Mennen, Murphy Oil Soap, Palmolive, Protex, Sanex, Science Diet, Skin Bracer, Softsoap, Speed Stick, Suavitel, Teen Spirit, Tom's of Maine, Ultra Brite, Vel Soap.3
Its worldwide sales revenues exceed nine billion dollars annually and it offers its products in 221 countries and provinces around the globe. Its product lines include oral, personal, household, and fabric care, as well as pet nutrition.5
And the “soap king’s” legacy was nearly as clean as the soap he made. William was a baptized member of the First Baptist Church in New York, where he was known as “Deacon Colgate.” He and his wife, Mary Gilbert Colgate, allowed no alcohol in their home. They and their 11 children read the family Bible together and the two were avid tithe payers, faithful throughout their lives, returning to God not just one-tenth of the earnings of all of the Colgate Company’s soap products, but 20 percent, then 30, and finally 50 percent of all income. It is said the origin of his devotion to tithing was that Colgate…recognized “God was the giver of all that he possessed, not only of opportunity, but even of the elements which were used in the manufacture of his products.”4
Colgate was active in various Christian civic efforts, including temperance. He also gave large sums of money to various educational institutions, including what was then called Madison College, in Hamilton, New York. Due to his generosity, the school is known today as Colgate University. He was a great supporter of missions, choosing at one time to be the sole supporter of one particular foreign missionary. In 1816, Colgate was instrumental in organizing the American Bible Society and later, the American and Foreign Bible Society. He also served on the board of the American Tract Society.5
More than just soap and suds, he is remembered as an upright, generous man providing honest goods to likely almost every U.S. household. He died on March 25, 1857, yet this tithe-payer’s products remain on shelves today.
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a^b^c “Success Story of William Colgate.” Success Story of William Colgate. Paradeep, October 26, 2009. http://pradeep-believeinyourself.blogspot.com/2009/10/success-story-of-william-colgate.html.
Boyd, Tami. “A History of Colgate Palmolive and Their Best Brands.” SupplyTime, September 7, 2016. https://www.supplytime.com/Blogs/Blog/History-of-Colgate-Palmolive-Company_23.aspx.
Unknown. “Colgate Palmolive Brands.” Colgate, 2019. https://www.colgatepalmolive.com/en-us/about/history.
Thomas, George Ernest. “Soap and Toothpaste: A Testimony about Giving.” Essay. In Spiritual Life through Tithing. Nashville, TN: Tidings, 1953.
a^b^ Lim, James. “William Colgate, the Cheerful Giver.” Christianhub, July 6, 2014. http://christianhub.org/2014/07/william-colgate-the-cheerful-giver/.
Cathcart, William. The Baptist Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Everts, 1881.