In Contemporary English: A Personal Speech Record (Leipzig and Berlin: B.G. Teubner, 1927), the British linguist William Edward Collinson (1889-1969) quoted the phrase that schoolgirl complexion in a paragraph about the influence of advertisements on literature:
At times advertisements exert their influence even on the language of literature as where Galsworthy, (p. 129) 1 speaks of a certain shade of colour of the eyes as Reckitt’s blue (cf. H. H. Richardson, The Way Home p. 113 2: “as for the sky, Mahony declared it made him think of a Reckitt’s bluebag”) from the blue-bags commonly used in washing clothes and manufactured by the firm of that name. When Wodehouse mentions that schoolgirl complexion (Ukridge 240) 3, many of us will at once think of the advertisement of Palmolive soap. It is almost as distinctive as the Kruschen feeling (being full of zip and go) from Kruschen salts.
1 The English novelist and playwright John Galsworthy (1867-1933) used Reckitt’s blue eyes in The White Monkey (London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1924), the first novel in the second Forsyte trilogy, entitled A Modern Comedy.
2 Henry Handel Richardson was the pen name of the Australian novelist and short-story writer Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson (1870-1946).
3 The English novelist and short-story writer Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) used the phrase that schoolgirl complexion in Ukridge Rounds a Nasty Corner, published in the collection of short stories Ukridge (London: Herbert Jenkins Limited, 1924)—this is the relevant passage, as published in The Strand Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly (London: George Newnes, Ltd.) of February 1924:
For a man like myself, who finds at least eight hours of sleep essential if that schoolgirl complexion is to be preserved, it was unfortunate that Leonard the parrot should have proved to be a bird of high-strung temperament, easily upset. The experiences which he had undergone since leaving home had, I was to discover, jarred his nervous system. He was reasonably tranquil during the hours preceding bedtime, and had started his beauty-sleep before I myself turned in; but at two in the morning something in the nature of a nightmare must have attacked him, for I was wrenched from slumber by the sound of a hoarse soliloquy in what I took to be some native dialect. This lasted without a break till two-fifteen, when he made a noise like a steam-riveter for some moments; after which, apparently soothed, he fell asleep again. I dropped off at about three, and at three-thirty was awakened by the strains of a deep-sea chanty.
IN AMERICAN ENGLISH
Although schoolgirl complexion was popularised by the advertisements for Palmolive soap, it is worth noting that it was previously and later used in advertisements for other beauty products—for example in an advertisement for Resinol, published in many U.S. newspapers, such as The Gazette Times (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), on Tuesday 14th January 1919:
Have you tried Resinol? If you have not, there is still an excellent chance of regaining that school-girl complexion you once were proud of.
In fact, the phrase schoolgirl complexion, or schoolgirl’s complexion, was already a cliché in 1919. For instance, Ellen Osborn used it when writing about the “jewels that are becoming to different types of beauty” in Late Fashion Chat, published in The Chicago Record (Chicago, Illinois) of Saturday 18th February 1899:
The turquoise is an uninteresting stone, but it suits well enough a pink and white school-girl’s complexion.
The phrase also occurs, for example, in Beauty at the Price of Great Pain, published in the New-York Tribune (New York City, N.Y.) of Sunday 28th February 1909:
The longest and most excruciating of all the “beauty” processes is when the face is absolutely skinned for a new complexion. Many a dissatisfied young woman who separates herself from society, and even from her nearest friend, on account of “nervous prostration,” is in reality being skinned alive, and emerges finally from her retirement with a schoolgirl complexion that is as fine as a baby’s skin and far more sensitive.
And the following is from a portrait of J. P. Seitz, president of the Seitz Auto Company, published in the Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland) of Sunday 16th December 1917:
There’s a reason for Mr. Seitz’s schoolgirl complexion, his Jovian front, his Hyperion locks.
The earliest advertisement for Palmolive soap that used the phrase that schoolgirl complexion is from The Border Cities Star (Windsor, Ontario) of Friday 8th August 1919:
This is the soap that helps to keep that schoolgirl complexion.
An advertisement for the Marr Stores, published in the Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, Washington) of Monday 4th October 1920, contained the following item:
“Keep that schoolgirl complexion.”
The following is the illustration for an advertisement for Palmolive soap published in many U.S. and Canadian newspapers on Monday 21st February 1921—for instance, in the Arkansas Democrat (Little Rock, Arkansas):
Keep that schoolgirl complexion
The earliest American-English use of that schoolgirl complexion as a phrase (i.e., without explicit reference to Palmolive soap) seems to be from the account of a baseball match between Oakland and Vernon, published in The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) of Thursday 9th June 1921:
That first inning can best be described in plain, simple, childish language. Why endeavor to paint the lily or that school-girl complexion?
IN BRITISH AND IRISH ENGLISH
The earliest advertisement for Palmolive soap that used the phrase that schoolgirl complexion is from the Belfast Telegraph (Belfast, Antrim, Ireland) of Wednesday 27th July 1921:
Keep that Schoolgirl Complexion.
The earliest British-English use of that schoolgirl complexion as a phrase is from the account of the Cairns Sunday School annual outing, published in the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald (Milngavie, Dunbartonshire, Scotland) of Friday 8th June 1923:
Through the kindness of Mr. Paterson, of High Craigton, the parents and children were privileged to romp to their heart’s delight over the broom and bracken braes of his sheep farm, and in three hours they inflated their lungs (to say nothing of their balloons) with as much fresh air as would enable them to retain “that schoolgirl complexion” until Christmas.