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