Remembering my mother’s smile.
When you’re a kid living dirt poor and struggling, about the only thing worth remembering is your mother’s smile.
My family lived in a small eastern Iowa town, near the Wisconsin and Illinois borders. Mom and Dad were raising us three kids in a five-room, cold-water flat they had rented. A commode had been installed under the stairs when I was four, but we hadn’t worked up to hot water yet. That would take another decade, and another house.
Like her mother before her, my mother had a hankering for pretty things, though she rarely got them. She especially liked the idea of special dishes just for company, to show her visitors she thought highly enough of them to get out the good china. An extra set of dishes beyond our daily ones, though, was well out of her barely-there budget.
Then Duz came along.
In the early 1950s, Procter & Gamble produced a boxed powdered soap called “Duz” with the tag line, “Duz does Everything!” claiming the soap worked even in the hardest water. It was the company’s promotional gimmick, though, that got my mother interested: the company was offering a set of china dishes absolutely free! One dish item, white with a golden wheat pattern and gold edging, would be placed in the box of Duz in a specified order, eventually providing the loyal and dedicated shopper with the complete set of china dishes, good enough for company…or so figured my mom.
Faithfully each week, she returned home from her grocery shopping in an excited flush, eager to add to her growing collection of “best china.” On one unusual day, I was a particularly well-behaved little girl. For a reward, Mom allowed me to pull out the prize.
The cardboard box was rough and strong, so I ripped off the top with a hard yank.
“Careful! Careful! You don’t want to break the dish!” Mom admonished.
I slowed down. I didn’t want to smash anything so precious as Mom’s special dishes. I reached my small hand much more carefully into the box. Mom stood eagerly by, waiting, while I continued my quest for the buried treasure.
The soap was grainy, feeling like the stuff could be fun if were something you could build forts with. But it was soap, and if I didn’t wash it off my fingers, would have it in my eyes and mouth and, as everybody knows, would sting and taste bad. My fingers soon hit upon something smooth and hard.
“I found it!’ I said excitedly. I gripped it and started to pull my hand out when Mom shouted, “Don’t get the soap all over!” I stopped in mid-box, then resumed a straightforward pulling action, ignoring how the cardboard side was scratching my wrist. I got the dish to the top and saw that it was a cup.
“Pour out the soap first!” my mother instructed.
I emptied the cup, pulled it free of the box, and proudly handed it to my mother. She carefully took it from me, turned around, and walked to the sink, where she lovingly washed it, proclaiming as she set it in the cupboard next to the other dishes she had been accumulating, “There! I’ll soon have a complete set and can get a couple extras in case one breaks.”
It was then I noticed she had completely abandoned the box of soap. I asked, “What about the soap?”
“Oh,” she said disinterestedly as she nodded her head in the direction of the sink counter. “Just set the box over there.”
I walked to the counter and set the opened box down. I turned and looked at Mom. She was still busy fussing with her growing “company” dishes. Eventually, she did acquire a whole complete set for eight, with a few extra, and rolled out the dishes proudly whenever company came and she wanted to set a pretty table. I’m pretty sure she never once used the soap for her laundry or the dishes.
As the decades passed and with both my parents gone, I began to think often of my childhood. Mom, Duz soap and her dishes, would always come to mind. As I collected my own sets of good china – not out of a detergent box, thank you kindly – I found myself unable to stop wondering what had happened to those “company” dishes. None of my siblings, I knew, were interested. I browsed antique stores, hoping to find a cup and saucer, or a plate. But, I had no luck. In time, I forgot about the Duz dishes with the golden wheat pattern.
Last spring, an unexpected package arrived for me, marked “fragile.” My honey had ordered me something as a surprise. I smiled. He was always doing cool things like that.
I carefully cut the tape and opened the box, seeing that it contained a few things wrapped in bubble wrap. I reached in, avoiding getting my arms scratched on the flaps of the box, and pulled out the top item. A bit of gold edging peered through the bubble wrap. I knew it was a plate….but it just couldn’t be that plate!
Forgetting about the “fragile” part now, I hurriedly tore off the bubble wrap. There in my hand was a miracle: one of my mom’s plates, with the golden wheat pattern and gold edging.
When every item was unwrapped, I stood back and stared at the dishes. I had unearthed a matching platter, two bowls, a cup, a saucer, and a drinking glass. Memories of my mom proudly serving her food on these special dishes washed over me. There was no way these could have been hers, but then again…they could have been.
I fingered the golden wheat stalk on the plate. I traced the gold around its edge. I lifted the cup, remembering the honor I had been given of pulling one out of the box of Duz. I washed the dishes and set them on a shelf in my hutch.
A few weeks later, through the wonders of online bidding, I acquired an unopened vintage box of Duz, and set it on the shelf next to my dishes. I stepped back and viewed the ensemble.
It wasn’t just soap and a few odd dishes I was seeing: it was my mother’s smile; her little bit of beauty in a harsh world, gathered painstakingly piece by piece, week after week – a reward for her persistence and patience.
That little box of Duz soap proved to my mom that no matter who you are, or what station you serve in life, your dreams can still come true.
Like the one I had as a little girl, seeing my mom standing tall and looking people in the eye with pride.
Duz did do everything.
At least, as far as I was concerned.
— (c) St. John 2007
You brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. I have one wheat plate which has become more important by the year. Thank you for your story. I can just see your Mom. Oh, and by the way Bellevue is a lovely town. We stayed in the Potter’s Mill
Thank you so very much for taking the time to leave such a wonderful message. I am moved by how my Duz story resonates with so many people. I am hoping it is still making my mom smile. Kind regards.
I reread your column, “Duz does Everything” tonight. I have my mother’s rather large collection of Duz dishes minus the glasses, which broke long ago, and the platter, which finally broke a few years back. I also have fond memories of opening the box of Duz each week to see what new treasure we would find.
My mother, who is now 88 years old, will be at my home tomorrow for Thanksgiving dinner. I am planning on serving our meal on her Duz dishes. I hope to bring a smile to her face when she sees her “good” dishes on the table.
Thanks for reminding me of how blessed I am to still have them both.
Thank you so much, Cheri, for taking the time to comment. I was delighted to hear of your Duz dishes and that you, too, remember the hunt for treasure! Best wishes to you and your mom for a continuation of those wonderful memories!
I loved your memories of the Duz powders and dishes and the great memories of your Mom. When I was a teenager, I had my Mama buy the Duz washing powders so I could have the prize. Our boxes had the wheat silverware. I was saving them for when I married. I have a few pieces and I still use them daily and both my husband and I had rather use the Duz forks and spoons rather than our good. Wish we still had the Duz. My Mama did use it for the laundry.
Thank all of you for sharing your memories. Here is one of my own: I don’t remember dishes in the Duz box but I remember my mother doing laundry with it in a conventional clothes washing machine with my grand pop (her father) helping out by running the washed clothes through the wringer rollers. I was too young to help with the washing operation being only 3 or 4 years old at the time but I was allowed to pour the soap into a measuring cup. That made me feel very important! I can still remember the red Duz box and the smell and consistency of the granular powder like it was yesterday.
I love this story. I just purchased a set, i loved them because they were pretty and retro. Im 52, Im sure my aunts and grandma all had some of these dishes. I had no idea the history. Thank you for a heart warming story. It exactly what l needed today. With my set I got 2 trivets, I havent seen anything about trivets. Were they in the soap too? Im going to look for my own box of duz.
Hi, Lisa, I am so glad you enjoyed the story! I don’t remember seeing a trivet in any of my mom’s Duz boxes. I can still feel that soap, though. The mention of a trivet made me think of Christmas shopping for my mom when I was a little girl. If you have a minute and are so inclined, read Christmas at the General Store under Small Town category…it’s a quick read, and you may enjoy it. Take care! Kind regards.
Loved the story. Reminds me of my childhood.
Thank you for letting me know that you liked the story. I feel we are smiling together at these memories.
This brought tears. Thank you for sharing your story. We had these growing up.
believe from Duz also, piece’s of the Sweetheart Monique?
Thank you, Sandi, for your thoughtful and poignant comment. I see the dishes hold a special place in your heart, too!
I was so very lucky my grand ma gave me her wheat patterned dishes she had also collected from Duz laundry soap she had a complete service for 24 plus all the serving pieces I am now in my 60’s and have used them for every holiday family get together since 1975 .every time I use them brings alot of memories of my grandma.
Hi, Vicky, I enjoyed your story of the dishes, too. Those dishes still make me smile, and I suspect, always will.
I like this story a lot. Many sites mention the Golden Wheat Dinnerware given away in Duz boxes. The sites usually say in the 1950s. One said the promotion began in the late 1950s. But nowhere can I find any information about the year the promotion began. Does anyone here know?
Although I don’t know the exact year, I am wondering if you might research the company that produced Duz? It may have gone kaput, or perhaps bought out, but maybe you might be able to track down the company and ask them? I personally think the value of these sweet dishes was not the design or the gold trim, but the priceless memories they hold for so many of us kids and grandkids.
It was made by Proctor and Gamble. I send them an e-mail asking if they knew what year the promotion began. The dishes are really great.
My memory of these glasses and dishes is on the supply side. My father was the purchasing agent at the Proctor & Gamble plant in St. Louis. I was only around 10 at the time, but I still remember the many times at the dinner table during the mid 50’s listening to him talk about what a hassle it was to make sure the box and the prize inside matched. The funny thing is that my father literally purchased all of the glasses and dishes that were given away, yet I do not remember my mother ever having a set of them.
Thank you, Bill, for this fascinating, personal history of the dishes! We forget that automation was not then, what it is now, and that human effort made those dishes match up with the offer! Really enjoyed learning of this.
There were several wheat pattern dishes out there. This particular pattern is Homer Laughlin, made in West Virginia. I was born in 1959, so I remember mom having some of the dishes and glasses as well, during the 60’s. I actually had 2 of the serving bowls up till recently, when I had to dramatically downsize. I gave them to my daughter. However, I found some of the dishes in a local antique store and purchased a teacup and saucer just a few days ago. It was very exciting! Love your story. It brought back many pieces of memories for me. 🥲💜
Thank you for sharing your lovely memory!