Hell yeah! Who isn’t fascinated by soap?
Really? That many people?
This week I’ve made a hundred bars of soap, all in preparation for the release of my first book. Soap and Victorian England go together like white pants and spilling things. And while I was pouring and dying and stirring, I couldn’t help but think about our long connection with soap. You can see some official olde tyme soap bars above and my slightly less-gnarly version to the right.
We don’t know for sure how long soap has even been around. Our first record of it is about 4,300 years ago. Instructions for how to make soap were written on a Babylonian cylinder. Basically, the ‘recipe’ is: combine a fatty acid with an alkali (or, to put it simply, mix ash and fat). Many different cultures experimented with soaps: China, Europe, Africa – all using the basic recipe. True but gross fact: some bodies can turn into soap all by themselves, with the right proportions of these materials.
Romans took to soap in a big way, and there is a soap factory amidst the ruins of Pompeii. This kind of soap was for laundry, however. People didn’t get into using soap until the middle of the nineteenth century. Prior to that time, too much bathing was frowned upon and the soaps were expensive and too harsh to use on your skin. The industrial revolution kick-started things. Innovators came up with manufacturing revolutions and (more importantly) they started adding fragrances so that everyone wouldn’t walk around smelling like lye and acid.
Things really took off at the beginning of the 1900s. Proctor & Gamble was one of the power players in the US and marketed the snot out of their soap, spending more than $400,000 a year on advertising (about ten million in today’s dollars). They so overran the airwaves that the daily radio and tv dramas were called ‘soap operas.’
The world produces about ten billion pounds of soap per year and the US is by far the biggest consumer. We may not crack the top 20 for education, but we are the cleanest. (Suck it, Latvia!) America makes and uses about one-third of the world soap total or three and a half billion pounds. By my admittedly biased estimates, I’ve produced at least a thousand pounds in my kitchen. J