Soap, Scent, Toners and Tonics… personal grooming in the 1700s

jean-baptiste-simeon-chardin-soap-bubbles-1735

It is experiments like these which clarify, at least for me, the impact of advertising on our lives.  While in the 18th century soap from commercial soapworks may have been superior to its home made counterpart, by 1811 the exact ratio of fats to lye was understood and tables were being published. Commercially produced lye, with a known ph, made the process even more reliable. And yet by 1930 the home production of soap was a lost art, with “homemade soap” becoming a pejorative. Like much of what we take for granted today the transformation of home made soap from a useful skill and product into a relic was the result of propaganda. Someone deliberately sold us on the idea that one product was superior to the other based on myth, innuendo, and subtle manipulation.  Those nice creamy bubbles you get from a modern bar of soap?  They don’t actually do anything except bubble.  They don’t contribute to getting you clean, or retain and “moisture” in your skin.  They just bubble so you’ll think the soap is something special.  You can achieve the same effect at home by adding palm or cocoanut oil to your olive oil and lard.

Soap, by the time of the American Revolution, is almost as common as dirt. It’s had a good long time to get established, starting in the ninth century with soap made primarily from olive oil being manufactured and sold from Marseilles. By the fourteenth century a similar soap is coming from Venice, and by the fifteenth century from Castile.  Meanwhile Bristol, Coventry and London were producing a tallow based soap, on an ever increasing scale.  In 1624 the Corporation of Soapmakers at Westminster was granted a royal patent to produce 5000 tons, that’s 10,000,000 pounds, or 40 million four ounce bars of soap.  Which explains why, by the 18th century, soap was a common domestic item.

That said, the use of soap, for personal hygiene, varies wildly in colonial America. General George Washington, upon surveying the militias sent out of New England, lamented that they were the dirtiest men he’d ever seen. He was, in fact, most uncomplimentary with regards to their personal habits. At the same time, records from Montreal show clerks, being sent out with Voyageurs, being paid in coin, clothing, and soap. The argument that bathing was too much effort, given the climate, in northern New England, doesn’t wash with me… if voyageurs in Canada took cleanliness sufficiently seriously to insist on being paid in bars of soap, then “cold” and “inconvenient” are not adequate explanations for a lack of bathing.

Along with “soap” I’m going to be exploring other interesting tidbits from the 1700s: emollients, perfumes, and styling.. recipes, of course, included.

In Which I Catch a Cold: 18th century cold remedies

In Which I Catch a Cold: 18th century cold remedies

The 18th century physician attributed the common cold to the “sucking in” of, essentially “noxious and moist” air, and “nitrous salts” which were inclined to “thicken the blood” and obstructing the “finer secretions.”  18th century cold remedies were designed to soothe the sufferer and cure the cold.. before it developed into something more serious. In some
read more

Toilet of Flora Olive Oil Soap c. 1779

Toilet of Flora Olive Oil Soap c. 1779

The Toilet of Flora has an entire chapter on Wash-Balls, most of which call for using “the best White Soap” in the ingredient list.  Fortunately, she provides a recipe for White Soap: This foap is made with one part of the Lees of Spanifh Pot-afh and Quick-lime, to two parts of Oil of Olives or
read more

18th Century Hand Pomade for Winter: A Hand Cream Recipe

18th Century Hand Pomade for Winter: A Hand Cream Recipe

I’ve been using Claire’s Cold Cream for a couple of weeks now, and I’m still amazed at how well a 1779 recipe for cold cream performs in 2013.  It makes a lovely night face cream, and easily substitutes for any body cream I’ve used, leaving appendages smooth and silky.  It’s quite impressive. What it won’t do is hold
read more

“Well not that bad, really.” : Claire’s Cold Cream

“Well not that bad, really.” : Claire’s Cold Cream

It was something of a revelation to me to realize, when I hit the half century mark, my husband’s vision is deteriorating in direct proportion to my looks.  As crinkles appear around my eyes, and lines cross my brow, my dearly beloved’s eyeglass prescription is climbing ever higher.  I figure by the time I’m a
read more

The Lallybroch Lather: soap at home in the 18th Century

The Lallybroch Lather: soap at home in the 18th Century

Claire, returning to Lallybroch with Jamie, knows Jenny is suspicious of her… and the proof is in the soap she’s been given to use.  Instead of the brown homemade wood ash lye soap everyone else makes do with, Claire is given a bar of French milled soap. By the time Jamie and Claire return to Lallybroch,
read more

Lost Lamb Soap: a recipe for milk soap

Lost Lamb Soap: a recipe for milk soap

Lost Lamb Soap is an Outlander inspired attempt to salvage something from a terrible situation.  We had an ewe try to lamb, outside no less, into a winter day hovering around 10 degrees F.  We might have been able to save the lamb if he hadn’t been too big to be born in the first place,
read more

 
Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: