Why Are Daytime Dramas Called Soap Operas?

January 13, 2023

A woman looking at a bar of soap for satire of a soap opera.

Daytime dramas are known as soap operas, but where did the moniker come from, and when did it happen?

The origin of the soap opera can be traced back to short, daytime serial dramas that took place on the radio in the 1930s. Radio executives wanted to increase ad revenue for their stations, so they began to court businesses that sold household products since the majority of people at home during the day at that time were women homemakers.

Procter & Gamble became the first major advertiser to sponsor one of these daytime dramas using their Oxydol soap powder, a laundry detergent. It didn’t take long for other soap and household goods manufacturers to get in on the act. Proctor & Gamble even began to produce their own radio shows. These radio dramas began to be associated with their advertisers, hence the name “soap opera.”

The first real soap opera was created by actress Irna Phillips in 1930 called Painted Dreams at radio station WGN in Chicago. It was a 15-minute daily drama involving a family that included a widow and her unmarried daughter. Phillips later went on to create the first soap opera on television in 1949 called These Are My Children, which should not be confused with All My Children, a completely different show that debuted in 1970. Phillips even created the soap hits Guiding Light, As the World Turns, and Another World.

The term “soap opera” was first used as the name of these shows in 1939, with the first mentions in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times in 1940. Soap companies continued to sponsor the shows that became a huge success even when they moved to television.

Only four soap operas remain today; The Bold and the Beautiful, Days of Our Lives, General Hospital, and The Young and the Restless. The shows have a much different mix of sponsors than those from the beginning days, but they have those early soap advertisers to thank for giving them the name soap operas.

Sources: Online Etymology, Thought Co, Guinness World Records, Finding Dulcinea, Soaps.com

Subscribe to our newsletter for a collection of stories that have been added to the Stew and get our FREE Ebook Quick Facts as a thank you.

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites (you can find out how to join below). I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

Follow the Stew

How to Join the Knowledge Stew Ad-Free Subscription Site on Medium

Join Medium now and get access to every story from Knowledge Stew and Fact World plus thousands of others ad-free. Your membership fee directly supports a continued stream of great content on Knowledge Stew and Fact World, and you’ll also get full access to thousands of other writers and stories on Medium. ($5 per month)