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Soap and Soapmaking - a View of the Past

Sometimes, going through our daily life, it's easy to view the world as it exists now and assume that's the way it always existed — or at least that things were very similar to the way they are now. Truthfully, that's not really the case. Taking soapmaking, for example. The state of the industry and what was important and newsworthy in past times was considerably different than it is today.

Imagine the excitement at the news of the first English patent relating to soapmaking which was granted in 1622. Messrs. Jones and Palmer applied for their patent for improvements in the manufacture of soap, stating in part:

"The misterie, arte, way and means of makinge of hard soape, comonly called by the name of venice or castile soape, without the use of anie fire in the boyling or makinge thereof, and with a materiall comonly called or known by the name of berillia, and The art, misterie, way and means of makinge of softe soape without the use of fire in the boyling and makinge thereof."

Developing Technology

Over the ensuing years, many advancements were made and additional patents for "the improvement of the soapmaking process" were taken granted. However soapmaking was still an art, passed from one master soapmaker to the next. The science wasn't yet developed and the materials and technology necessary to industrialize soapmaking were not available.

By the 18th Century, the Spanish were producing and exporting high-quality barilla (soda ash or sodium carbonate) made from the saltwort plant family (called barilla in Spanish). As mentioned in the 1622 patent, berilla, imported or otherwise, was a main source of alkali for soapmaking.

In 1775, the French Academy of Sciences offered a prize for the development of a process to produce soda ash from salt. The prize was awarded to Nicolas Leblanc in 1791 for his success in producing sodium carbonate from salt.

This technology reduced the need for barilla and made it possible to industrially manufacture soda ash (sodium carbonate) for soapmaking and other purposes. Leblanc set up a plant which produced 320 tons of soda ash per year. Unfortunately, the French Revolutionary Government confiscated his plant and refused to pay the prize money. Napoleon returned the plant (but not the prize) in 1802, but by that time Leblanc could not afford to run it. He committed suicide in 1806.

Leblanc's method was replaced by a new process developed by Ernest Solvay during the 1860's using salt and limestone. Being easier and cheaper, it gained wide use then and is still in use today (although the sodium hydroxide we use in making soap is obtained from a still different method using electrolysis of salt water).

Meantime, with the 1823 publication of Michel Eugène Chervreul's Recherches sur les corps gras d'origine animale ("Research on fats of animal origin") documenting his research into oils and soap, an understanding of the role of fatty acids in soapmaking was finally understood. However it took some time before the research was acknowledged and used widely within the industry.

With all this technology and development in place, there were only a few more things needed for soap products to become easily made and widely distributed. First was the mechanization of equipment to handle large quantities of soap; second was a method for inexpensive transportation, and third was a general acceptance of the necessity for soap in personal hygiene. The first two were solved with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century. The third was accomplished with the slow acceptance of the "germ theory of disease" in the late 1800's, a change in perceptions of the bath and cleanliness and mass marketing.

By the middle of the 1800's, industry in the US (and elsewhere) was on a fast track. With steam engines to power both manufacturing and rail transport, everything was in place for soapmaking to become industrialized and the products widespread. Cities were flourishing with shops and merchandise and print magazines and newspapers were carrying the message. The rest, as they say, is history.

Prominent Soapmakers

William Proctor, a candlemaker, and James Gamble, a soapmaker, were immigrants who married sisters Olivia and Elizabeth Norris, and formed Proctor and Gamble in 1837 in Cincinnati, OH. By 1859 sales had reached $1 million per year and they won contracts to provide the Union Army with soap and candles during the War Between the States. P & G developed their "White Soap" which became Ivory Soap in 1878, when a workman left the machine on too long creating their famous "floating soap." That discovery led P & G to start its first effort at mass-marketing its products, particularly Ivory Soap, through continuous consumer advertising.

William Colgate, a soap and candle maker, opened a factory in New York City in 1806. In the 1840's the company started selling individually packaged bars in uniform weights. They introduced their trademark "Cashmere Bouquet" soap in 1872 and their first toothpaste in 1873.

Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, WI, the B.J.Johnson Company developed a soap made entirely from palm and olive oils in 1898. At the turn of the last century Palmolive soap was the world's best selling soap. They renamed their company "Palmolive" in 1917.

In 1862, Robert Peet arrived from England and went to work for his uncle, Joseph Stafford, a soapmaker in Cleveland, OH. Robert branched off with his two brothers, Jesse and William in 1872, starting Peet Brothers soap manufacturing with $1,500 in capital. For the first 6 months they did all the work themselves; twenty-five years later (1897), they were the largest soap manufacturer west of the Mississippi, with 250 employees, producing 25 brands of laundry soap, nearly as many brands of toilet soap and high-quality glycerin. At the peak, their capacity was 225,000 pounds of laundry soap, 35,000 pounds of toilet soap and 12,000 pounds of glycerin ... weekly!

Send the Office Boy

Peet Brothers merged with Palmolive in 1927 to become Palmolive-Peet. In 1928 Palmolive-Peet purchased Colgate and became Colgate-Palmolive-Peet. The "Peet" was dropped in 1958.

Across the pond in England, Andrew Pears, a barber in London, developed a gentle, transparent soap in the early 1800's. In 1851 the company was awarded the prize medal for soap at The Great Exhibition (the first of the World's Fairs). By 1900, Pears' soap was widely advertised, leading to a new type of marketing.

Lever Brothers was founded in 1885 by William Hesketh Lever and his brother, James, when they bought a small soapworks in Warrington, England. Using vegetable oils rather than tallow to manufacture soap, they produced "Sunlight Soap", which they were producing at a rate of 450 tons per week by 1888. Lever Brothers purchased Pears' Soap in the mid 1910's and then merged with Dutch margarine manufacturer Unie in 1930 to become UniLever.

In Canada, according to Merilyn Mohr in her book, The Art of Soapmaking, soap manufacturers were also springing up in most Canadian urban centers. In the west was Beaver Soaps Limited of Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 1875, the Royal Soap Company was founded in St. Boniface, Manitoba; in 1878 William Strachan began soap manufacture in Montreal; in 1884 the Ganong Brothers in New Brunswick formed the St. Croix Soap Company.

Around the 1870's, John Taylor learned soapmaking from George Morse of Morse Soaps and then went on to purchase the company and rename it John Taylor & Co. As of 1912, it was being advertised in British Columbia Magazine as the "Oldest and Largest Perfumers and Toilet Soap Makers in Canada".

The School Girl

Another soapmaker from the period, Alexander Majors, was famous not for his second career of soapmaking, but for his first career. The Omaha Daily Bee published an article about him on October 3, 1887:

A bright-eyed old man with a step as light as a boy's and the general aspect of a well-preserved man of fifty is engaged in the common-place occupation of soapmaking on West Ninth street. He will be seventy-three years old the 4th of October, and his career is part of the history of the United States. His name is Alexander Majors, and he is the man that established the first pony-express line on the plains.

It seems then, as now, soapmaking wasn't always a first career, but was something chosen later in life as a new path to take.

The Number of Soapmakers

Starting in 1870, the decennial US census takers recorded the occupations of all people enumerated. Soap, tallow and candlemakers were specifically included in the tabulations of the 1870 to 1900 censuses. The graph below shows the number of soap, candle and tallow manufacturers for those years, broken out into the number of men and women engaged in the trade.

US Soap & Candle Makers

After 1900, soap was classed as a subset of "chemical manufacturers." Information on individual soap and candle makers may have been collected, but apparently was not tabulated and published.

According to the US census of 1880, there were 629 soap and candle manufacturing businesses in the United States. By 1890 that had dropped to 578, and in 1900 the number was only 558.

Meantime, the southern states were recovering from the ravages of the War Between the States and working to rebuild their industrial manufacturing capacity. An article in the Fort Worth (Texas) Gazette on July 16th, 1889, posed the question of soapmaking as a viable option. Given that much of the oil used in soapmaking was from crops raised in the south, it was a valid question!

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Soap Import & Export

By the end of the 1800's, soap was both imported and exported from the United States with sufficient quantity that the statistics were tracked by the government. The graph below shows the import and export amounts of toilet soaps from 1883 to 1910. As can be seen, by 1900 the exports surpassed the imports and by 1910 exports reached nearly $1.5 million and were almost three times the amount of exports.

Soap Imports & Exports

Value of Soap

Numbers are available for the amount of pounds of toilet soap imported during this same period. Based on the quantity and value of imports, the wholesale value of 1 pound of imported soap stayed fairly consistent at between 40¢ to 45¢ per pound except for 1895 - 1897 when it dropped to an average 31¢ per pound, and 1910 when it dropped to 13¢ per pound.

Adjusted for inflation (using several online tools), 42¢ in 1900 translates to about $9.95 per pound (wholesale) in 2009. Considering that the average size bar is 4 oz., making 4 bars per pound of soap, that puts the 1900 price adjusted for inflation at $2.48 per 4 oz. bar — fairly close to the actual wholesale prices charged by handcrafted soapmakers in 2009.

At the same time (1900), toilet soap was selling retail for 10¢ - 25¢ per bar (mean price 17.5¢). Again adjusting for inflation, that translates to $2.37 to $5.92 per bar, with a mean of $4.14. Again, fairly close to the actual retail prices charged by handcrafted soapmakers one hundred years later.

Of course, the 2009 prices for industrially produced commercial soaps are considerably less — not surprising!

From Tub to Line

Increased Urbanization

With the increase in the number of people living in cities, new issues arose. That of getting foodstuffs to city-dwellers who couldn't grow their own foods, providing housing and dealing with sanitation issues were all matters of concern in the mid 1850's to early 1900's. Businesses that rendered animal fat into tallow for soapmaking were becoming a problem as urban areas expanded around them.

The adage we hear now "reduce, reuse, recycle" wasn't heard then, but many of the principles applied. In some major cities, garbage removal (including sources of tallow) was contracted out and an extremely profitable industry rose up to extract grease and oil from refuse which was then used to make soap. (See old newspaper articles below.)

Study of Death

An interesting article from 1898 discusses a "study of death" that had been recently published. Apparently the study reviewed recorded causes of death and compared them to the occupation of the deceased.

... the mortality from alcoholism among agricultural laborers, railway men, iron and tin and coal miners, clergymen, fishermen and others is far below the average ..while in the case of soap manufacturers, lead workers, copper miners and carpet manufacturers, no deaths whatever are recorded from alcoholism. It would be of interest to know if there is some subtle relation between soap making and total abstinence.

In the Public Eye

From the amount of soap that was imported and exported, as well as the rise in the number of soapmakers, there is no doubt that the public was purchasing cleaning, laundry and toilet soaps in greater and greater quantities. Soap was becoming a household staple.

Watch The Baby!

By the late 1800's, personal care advice was published in newspaper and ads for soaps were widespread. Then, just as now, women got health and beauty tips from newspapers and magazines.

Buyer Beware

Prior to 1906, there was virtually no regulation of claims for products. "Buyer beware" was the operating basis. Claims made for soap and cosmetics were wide, varied and unsubstantiated. While soaps are generally safe, cosmetic ingredients at the time often included lead, mercury, a wide variety of untested colorants and other toxic substances.


In fact, patent medicine sales were so widespread that "patent medicine manufacturer" was one of the occupations categorized on the 1900 census!

Sunshine as Hair Tonic

We are extremely fortunate that in the ensuing 100 years science and technology have advanced to the point that we can consistently make safe and effective soaps and cosmetics. By taking advantage of those advances, we have created an industry of safe handcrafted soap and cosmetics which will hopefully continue and flourish for the next 100 years!

Related Articles

Article originally published in the Fort Worth Gazette, July 16th, 1889, page 2. Edited to omit several inapplicable paragraphs (indicated by elipsis (...))

What the South May Manufacture Profitably
—Some Hints for Texas

The Baltimore Manufacturers' Record answers numerous letters of inquiry as what manufacturing enterprise will pay best in this way: .. those things which are quickly consumed, and for which there is an unlimited demand and that require but a small capital to understand are the safest for inexperienced people. Just as cotton, wheat, rice, corn and other staples of agriculture are always saleable at some price, so also are shoes, brooms, hoops, soap, pickles, preserves, dried and evaporated fruits, pure cider vinegar, blackberry wine, cheap wrapping paper, twine and scores of other things, few of which require much money at the start, but all of which can be commenced in a small way, and by industry and economy can be increased into large and profitable enterprises.

Our compilation of new undertakings for the second quarter of this year... shows that in the fourteen Southern states named there were quite a number of new beginnings made in enterprises of the kind recommended, and the reports of like periods for the past five years show about the same proportion. This list includes one pickle, one preserve, two bung, five shoe, eleven broom, two hoop, one shoestring and two soap factories. ...

We have often wondered why soap making has not been made an important southern industry. Nothing is used more generally or comsumed more rapidly. In slavery days when there was a leachery on every plantation, laundry soap was a domestic production. Now the stores carry large stocks obtained from Chicago, New York and other Northern cities. The South .. is paying a heavy tribute to Northern manufacturers, while furnishing them the rosin and cotton seed oil of what they make large use.

We have seen boxes of cheap soap containing a large percentage of rosin heaped up in wholesale stores in the Southern commercial centers, when we could not find a single bar made below the Ohio and Potomac rivers. Soapmaking, both for the laundry and toilet, can be and ought to be a great Southern industry.

While in Chicago several years ago, we were visiting an extensive job printing house. There we saw two dray loads of labels sent to a soap maker. On inquiry we learned that the average monthly bill for labels paid that printing house by this one concern exceeded fifteen hundred dollars. This led to a visit to the soap factory, where we found that they consumed from twelve to fifteen thousand barrels of rosin annually.

Thus North Carolina and Georgia turpentine distillers are supplying, at infinitesimal profit to themselves, a material that, after having added to it commissions, wharfages and freights to Chicago, comes back in soap, to which the maker's profits, the freight charges and the jobbers' and retail merchants' profits are added, and Southern consumers pay all these unnecessary bills. Surely soap factories will pay, and yet in fourteen states, in the last three months, but two new ones have been started.

New York Tribune, August 23, 1903

The City's Garbage Now Has a Commercial Value

The housewife hears the janitor's "Hello!" up the dumbwaiter shaft. Dinner is over, and, with the aid of Jennie, the twelve-year-old daughter, she has washed and wiped the dishes. Jennie was so anxious to go down to the Sullivans' flat to see Mary Sullivan's new hat that she even hurried her mother through the evening task.

"Hello, fourth floor, front!" re-echoes up the shaft. There is the slapping sound of pully ropes as they sway back and forth in hoisting the dumbwaiter. Presently the "silent monitor," as the Boston flat dwellers are said to call it, emerged from the depths of its seclusion and stopped opposite the opened tin door.

"I'm glad that's out of the way," said the daughter, as she placed a pail of kitchen refuse on the shelf of the dumbwaiter and slammed the door. "That's what I hate about housekeeping. I just hate cleaning up. I don't mind cooking and marketing, but the dirt and the grease - oh! I'll never get married. No; not unless I can live in a hotel and unless" --

The mother interrupted the girl to tell her she might change her opinions later in life, but Jennie began again: "Just look at my hands," and as she began to scrub them in the suds of some colored soap, she continued: "What will Tim Sullivan think of my hands anyway? The old dishwater makes them red and I have to scrub and scrub to get the grease off. Mamma, we must get some more of this violet colored soap. It smells so sweet"!

Little does Jennie know, nor many another girl with decided views on marriage and housekeeping know, that the grease from the kitchen comes back to them after many days as dainty toilet soaps. One they say they "hate the sight of." The other is "just lovely." One is an expense to get rid of, for the rent includes what the real estate man euphoniously calls "hall service." The other is an expense to buy.

Man in imitating nature is more and more succeeding in utilizing what a spendthrift calls waste. Invention is economizing to-day what yesterday was thrown into the garbage pail or the sewer. The by-products of ore and oil, of wood and coal, are becoming more and more numerous. The crude petroleum oil nowadays not only furnished kerosene, naphtha, tar, vaseline and many more commercially important articles, but, as one grammar school boy said recently: "The by-product of universities is obtained nowadays from oil."

In the evolution of soap making it has been discovered that grease from kitchens can be refined and clarified to as high a degree as any other animal fat. Soaps made from such humble ingredients, manufacturers say, are as clean and wholesome as other soaps, if the refining process is carried on long enough and thoroughly.

It is for this reason that the kitchen cleanings of the larger cities of the United States are no longer thrown away to become a menace to health; but are "utilized," as the man of the trade terms it.

In this city, as in Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore, the vast amount of garbage is carried away to "conversion plants" and transformed into marketable products. The business employs as skilful methods as it does euphonious terms. There is as little odor of what the vulgar call garbage in a "conversion plant" as there is any suggestion of unpleasantness in the words "utilization," the name of the process; "digesters," the huge vats in which the refuse is boiled, or "screenings," the name applied to hairpins, nails, corset steels, watch springs, pieces of old bottles, or other stray relics of civilization, which may have escaped detection until the final stage.

Filling Barrels

In the winter eight hundred thousand tons of garbage are removed from the houses in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and in the summer, when New-Yorkers buy and take home the season's produce of fruits, melons and vegetables, the kitchens of these boroughs cast out 1,800,000 tons. All this vast output is cared for by one company, whose scows take it at the various dumping places along the North and East Rivers and carry it away to its plant at Barren Island. The utilization of the garbage of the other boroughs will soon be conducted in the same manner. The city pays $232,000 a year for the disposal of the Manhattan garbage, $47,000 for that of Brooklyn and $54 a day for that of The Bronx. The garbage of Richmond and Queens boroughs is reduced to ashes at the present time in crematories, but will also be utilized as soon as plans are perfected.

Should one visit the utilization works at Barren Island, New-York, or on the east bank of the Schuykill River, Philadelphia, he would find that it is not the ill smelling place he had anticipated. The air, instead, is filled with an odor a little like licorice, a little like caramel. A scow unloads on the shore and its contents are carried up a long incline, by means of the ever ascending cross arms of two endless chains. At the top of the building it slides along a conveyer, to be dumped into long rows of cylindrical vats with conical bases. Each is called a "digester," and holds eight to ten tons. When partly filled water is added and the chamber is closed tight. At the same time, steam is turned on, and the watery mass is permitted to boil for six hours.

The cooking completed, a workman turns a stopcock at the bottom of the digester, and the boiling contents drop into a receptacle below. This is not seen, and only a few spurts of steam show where the connecting chambers are not wholly airtight. The receivers have bottoms that slant in toward the bottom, where through holes much of the water is drained off. This is collected in tanks and the grease is skimmed off. It is now called "stick water."

Cutting Soap Into Cakes

The solid mass is carried away on another set of conveyors to presses. It is squeezed until the last drop runs out of the "cheeses." From this liquid arises a great amount of grease, which is also drained off. The residue is then dried, broken up into fine particles, screened and sold as fertilizer. If a high grade of fertilizer is wanted, the fluffy, brown product, which is called "tankage" is soaked in the stick water, and then dried again. The final product is black, and contains considerably more ammonia and potash than the brown product. It has a smell like burnt sugar. From 100 tons taken from the scow, 70 percent is water, 3 percent is grease, and 25% is fertilizer. The coarser tankage, which is about 2 percent of the total product, and which cannot be used to enrich the soap or orchard or pasture, is used as fuel to furnish the plant with power.

Stamping soap

In such a soap factory the oil is mixed with an alkali, together with tallow, cocoa oil, linseed oil and perfumery, in a tank holding about forty thousand pounds. It is boiled every other day for a week. Only a skilled soap maker, who has watched these alternate boilings and coolings, can tell when this stage of the process is complete. Then the fluid is pumped into crutching machines, consisting of iron cylinders with pockets of cold running water, where the soap is hardened. The manufacturer now dries his product, cuts it by machinery, which will create a hundred cakes with one stroke, stamps it with his brand, wraps it with a covering, either of paper or tinfoil as becomes its quality and ships it to all parts of the world.

More About the Barren Island Facility

The article quoted, while probably fairly accurate in its descriptions of the processing plant, glosses over the history and effects of the facility.

A cholera epidemic in 1849 was the catalyst for reforming how garbage was dealt with on Manhattan. Alfred W. White, the city inspector responsible for enforcing health ordinances, was point-man for cleaning things up. "Boiling houses" which rendered the fat from dead animals for soapmaking were dirty, smelly and considered a big part of the problem. White was given the authority to close "offending businesses" and also for the removal of refuse. Apparently he saw a business opportunity as he is quoted as saying "there is the greatest chance for a fortune I ever saw." White quietly went into business with several partners and soon had the contract to remove all "soap boiler's nuisances" from the city and a monopoly on the garbage processing industry. After first setting up on another island in the Bronx, they secretly purchased Barren Island and started the first landfill and processing plants there in the 1850's. The plant mentioned in the article wasn't built until 1897.

The facilities on Barren Island processed tens of thousands of dead animal carcasses every year. By 1900 it was the "largest, most odorous accumulation of offal, garbage, and alienated labor in the history of the world.” It also generated over $10 million annual revenue for its owners and hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil for soapmaking (most of which was shipped to Europe).

Barren Island is now gone, the island itself connected to the far south-east corner of Brooklyn by landfill. The building were demolished and the residents evicted in the 1930's to make way for Bennett Airfield. It is now part of The Gateway National Recreation Area. All that's left to acknowledge the area's past is the name of one little section of the beachline — Dead Horse Bay.

Originally Published in Soap Guild Journal of March of 2009.

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