Keeping It Clean, Part Two: Soap!

So our young lady in need of a good wash has her hip bath filled with warm water (and I’m still thinking about those poor maids having to carry it all up for her!) set before the fireplace in her room and surrounded by screens for privacy and to keep the drafts out. There’s probably a chair set nearby too, with a towel warming on it. Our hypothetical young lady steps in and sits down, knees drawn up, maybe scoops some water over her shoulders…and then what?

Well, she reaches for the soap, of course.

Although Castile soap from Spain had been imported into England since the 16th century, the London Soapers’ Company was established in the 1630s to try to give them some competition. After some setbacks in mid-century (the puritanical Roundheads evidently did not believe that cleanliness was next to godliness), by 1700 there were sixty-three soap factories in London making soap in various qualities: speckled was the best and most expensive, then came white, and finally the cheapest, gray. Purchasers bought soft soap by the firkin (a small bucket) and added their own perfume, if they liked; lavender was a favorite.

In 1789 a new soap appeared on the market when an apothecary named Andrew Pears created his transparent bars of hard soap (and yes, that’s the Pear’s Soap you still see on market shelves today). The tax on soap, which had been established in the early 1700s, rose over the decades to three shillings per pound in 1815…which, considering that soap cost about that, meant the tax on soap was 100%—not exactly an inducement to cleanliness!

Fortunately for the noses of London, the tax was cut in half in 1833 and abolished in 1853, which may or may not have had something to do with the growing interest in bathing for health.

So our young lady lathers up…and that includes her head. Shampoo as we know it didn’t exist, so regular old soap was used for hair washing as well. The problem was that it tended to be very harsh and strip away too much oil, leading to a head full of straw-like frizz…which is why 19th century beauty manuals always exhort young ladies to brush their hair one hundred strokes morning and night—in order to redistribute naturally occurring oil and cut down on the frizzies.

I was going to discuss shampoo today as well, but my research turned up such an interesting (and multi-national) story that it deserves its own entry. And so, stayed tuned for “Keeping it Clean Part 3: Dean Mahomet, Therapeutic Massage, and Champi.”

P.S. Below are some ads for soap drawn from the February 1808 Advertising Supplement to La Belle Assemblee magazine. Short and snappy ads had obviously not yet been thought of!!

The Nobility, Gentry, and Public are respectfully informed, that J. DELACROIX has prepared the above valuable Soap Paste from a recipe of Mr. Profkosky, his friend, an eminent Chemist at Warsaw, who is the sole inventor and proprietor of this precious Composition, which has universally been approved of by persons of the first rank, inhabiting that bleak and frozen country, for softening, nourishing, and whitening the skin, and allowed to be a certain preventive against the cold air, chopping
[I presume it means ‘chapping’!] the face and hands.

This article cannot be offered at a more proper time than at the winter season, when a trial of two days will convince of its superior virtues, as well as superiority over any discovery of the kind ever presented to the public.”


For preserving and softening the Skin, possessing also the true Flavour of that much admired Perfume, from which this newly invented Article takes its name.

Prepared by, and sold at J.T. Rigge’s Perfumery Warehouses, No.65, Cheapside and No.52, Park-street, Grosvenor-square: where may also be obtained his much-admired Royal Almond Compound, and celebrated Violet-scented Almond Soap. with a most extensive assortment of every fashionable and useful Preparation for the Skin. Warren’s genuine Milk of Roses; Gowland’s Lotion; Cream of Almonds; and Blake’s celebrated Cream of Almond Soap.”


“The skin preserved from Chopping &c. during the most intense Winter, by the emollient Properties of MIDDLEWOOD’S ROYAL ABYSSINIAN FLOWER SOAP, which is held in the highest repute throughout the Universe, for washing the Hands and Face beautifully clean, white, and smooth–preserving the delicate texture of the skin, particularly young Children, even if washed with hard water, and Gentlemen highly approve its efficacy in shaving.

When this celebrated Soap, which is the sole property and invention of J.W. Middlewood, Wholesale Perfumer, High-street, Whitechapel, London, was introduced to the Royal Family, they were graciously pleased to approve its agreeable properties, by honouring the proprietor with the appointment of Perfumer and Abyssinian Flower Soap Maker to the Princess of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of York, and the Duke of Cumberland, to whom, with the many illustrious Families, the Gentry, his Friends, and the Public in general, he feels deeply impressed with gratitude for their distinguished preference, and hopes, by unremitting attention to its fragrance, &c. to merit a continuance of their protection.

The Proprietor feels it his duty to caution the public against counterfeits, which are now circulating–one under the assumed title of Genuine–another the Improved Abyssinian Soap; indeed the word improved is become the denomination for deception, and which can only be effectually guarded against by desiring servants or carriers to be careful to ask for Middlewood’s Soap, and to observe his name, with the Duke and Duchess of York’s Arms, &c. are on the outside wrapper. Price 1s. the square, or 10s. the dozen.”




Keeping It Clean, Part Two: Soap! — 4 Comments

  1. I’ve read numerous books and journals from the colonial period of North America. We weren’t yet the US. On the frontier, girls were expected to clean the hearth, reserving the wood ash for soap making. Mostly this was for laundry, but also the Saturday night bath before attending church on Sunday morning. In many of the colonies church attendance was mandatory and approaching God in normal everyday dirty skin was not proper at all.

  2. I’m so glad you mentioned Dean Mahomet! He’s fascinating. And during the era when men were still wearing wigs, you never knew what they were infested with (and what would be nibbling on your usually close-cropped hair. I sometimes think that being a Gentleman’s Valet was not a job for the squeamish.

  3. You can also just use wood ash directly for cleaning.

    When England went to coal burning — and London was using it almost exclusively by the end of the Elizabethan era — buying soap became much more important.