Over the years, I have read dozens of Regency romances which include a scene in the bath. The hero may or may not be present while the heroine bathes, but one thing which is always close at hand is a bar of soap. Yet during the Regency, bar soap was extremely expensive, used only by the affluent classes. Bar soap, something so ubiquitous today we take it for granted. Yet, it was only in the last decade of the eighteenth century that a French chemist patented a method of making bar soap which should have helped to reduce the cost, making it available to more people. Before that time, those of modest means were more likely to use the less expensive soft soap.
A brief history of how soap lathered its way to the Regency …
Essentially, soap is an amalgamation of two incompatible elements, fat or oil and lye. The earliest soaps were made of waste fat, like tallow, and woodashes, which were the most common source of alkali. The woodash was concentrated in a solution of water and along with the rendered fats, was boiled together until they reached the point of saponification, that is, when the two once incompatible elements amalgamate to become soap.
The substance we know today as soap was in use almost 5000 years ago in ancient Babylon. What is probably the first recipe for soap was recorded by the Babylonians about 2200 BC. Forumlas for soap have also been found in ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls. The Romans are known to have had soap, though they used it for washing clothes and as a hair pomade, not for cleaning themselves. Immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire, the manufacture of soap was all but abandoned. However, by the eighth century, soap was once more regularly being made in cities in both Italy and Spain. Soapmaking gradually spread north across Europe.
By the thirteenth century, soapmaking had reached England, but the soaps made there were rather crude compared to those made in the cities of the Mediterranean. Soaps in England were made from waste animal fats, usually from beef, while soaps from Naples, Marseilles and Spain were made of olive oil. By the sixteenth century, English soapmakers, called "soap-boilers," were also making finer grade soaps using olive and other vegetable oils. The fine soaps made of olive oil were extremely expensive and were therefore purchased and used only by the wealthy. Often, precious fragrance oils were added to these high-grade vegetable oil soaps, further increasing their cost, but also their appeal to affluent customers.
Soap-boiling was a complicated, dangerous and revoltingly smelly process. It was necessary to have the correct proportions of each ingredient in the pot. If there was too much fat the soap was greasy and would not lather. If there was too much lye, the soap was harsh and grainy. Lye, which was alkali in solution, was highly caustic, causing serious burns if it came in contact with the skin or eyes. Animal fats used for soap-making first had to be rendered, that is cleaned, to remove all of the meat tissues in the fat by heating it to melting point, then straining the melted fat. Rendering the fat emitted a stench which was nauseating. As you might imagine, for that reason, soap-boilers typically located their premises away from residential areas, receiving many complaints if they did not. Cheap candles were made of beef tallow, one of the ingredients in cheap soaps. For that reason, many soap-boilers were also chandlers, that is, makers of candles.
After rendered fat and concentrated wood ash solution were slowly boiled to the point of saponification, the mixture was allowed to cool for several hours. The result was a brownish jelly known as soft soap. The newly-made soap had to be allowed to cure for at least a month to complete the saponification process before it was gentle enough to be used safely. If the soap was used too soon, the residual lye would sting the skin. Soft soap was stored in wooden barrels. It would be ladled out into smaller containers for sale, though many customers purchased soft soap by the barrel. This was the cheapest form of soap, and was used for washing just about everything, including floors, dishes, clothes, and people. In some rural areas, it was the only soap available.
If bars of soap were wanted, salt was added to the soap pot near the end of the boiling process, when the mixture was on the point of saponification. This salted mixture was poured into wooden forms where it would solidify as it cooled over several hours. Bar soap would also have to cure for at least a month before the lye was fully absorbed and it was ready to be used. Interestingly, this hard soap was stored as a single large bar, from which smaller bars would be cut based on a customer’s requirements, and payment was typically by the pound. However, salt was in short supply, and bar soap was no more effective as a cleaner than soft soap. For that reason, soap-boilers usually only made bar soap for their more affluent customers, who typically purchased bar soap for their personal use. These same customers also bought barrels of the cheaper soft soap for use in their households.
Better quality soaps could be made by using pearlash in place of simple woodash. Pearlash is made from potash, which in turn is made from woodash. Potash was the residue left behind when woodash was leached into water and then the alkaline water was allowed to evaporate. That residue was then baked in a kiln or oven until the carbon impurities were burned away. The resulting fine white powder was pearlash. Both potash and pearlash were used in the making of glass as well as soap. Vast amounts of both were made in North America for export to England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but at a huge environmental cost. Extensive acres of forests were cut by many settlers across the continent in order to make these chemical compounds, as it was often their only source of cash income. Pedlars traveled across the country every year, buying the small amounts of potash and pearlash made on each farm and homestead, which they in turn re-sold for shipment to England.
In 1791, the French chemist, Nicholas Leblanc, developed a process for making an alkali, sodium carbonate, from common salt. This new process eliminated the need for potash or pearlash in the making of hard soap, and resulted in much firmer bars of soap. When this alkali production process was implemented on an industrial level, it should have reduced the cost of bar soap. But since the days of Queen Anne, bar soap had been considered a luxury item, and was therefore heavily taxed. Thus, even though bar soap of high quality could be made more cheaply by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the heavy tax in England meant that only the wealthy could afford it. The poor had to make do with soft soap, which they often had to make themselves.
By 1780, few people who lived in the cities and towns of Britain made their own soap, hard or soft. It was now typically made by professional soap-boilers who had developed reliable distribution systems across the country. Bar soap was easier to store and to ship, so it was bar soap which was most often shipped to shop-keepers, coaching inns and hotels across the country. By the end of the decade, soap was generally made only in the homes of the very poor, and those who lived in remote rural areas. Most of this home-made soap was soft soap.
However, many of those early soap formulas produced soaps that were rather harsh, particularly for delicate aristocratic complexions. In 1789, a barber with a shop in Gerrard Street in Soho, saw the need for a high-quality bar soap which was very gentle on delicate skin. Andrew Pears not only developed a highly-refined and very gentle soap, he also developed the very first transparent soap. Pears Soap was scented to give it the fragrance of an English garden and was immediately popular with Mr. Pears’ clientele. Soon it was the preferred bar soap among much of the English nobility and affluent gentry.
Noting the success of Pears’ soap, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, many English soap-boilers went to great effort to appeal to their affluent bar soap customers. They experimented with several different vegetable oils in order to make more gentle soaps. In addition to olive oil, they made soap with cottonseed, linseed, palm, coconut and cocoa oils. They also expanded the number of essential oils they used to scent their soaps. By the beginning of the Regency it was possible to buy bar soaps scented with rosemary, wintergreen, caraway, lemon, nutmeg, almond, orange, cinnamon, marjoram, neroli, lavender, anise, bergamot, cassia, jasmine, clove, sassafras, violet, myrtle and rose. Bar soap was such a luxury item during this period that soaps were exchanged as diplomatic gifts between leaders of several of the European countries. The Prince Regent himself is known to have spent a fortune on toiletries, particularly on finely-made and scented bar soaps. Some of these very fine toilet soaps were the first to be wrapped for sale in a fine tissue paper, known as "silk paper." They were also the first to be molded into simple shapes like disks, squares or rectangles.
Even the highest quality bar soaps available during the Regency were not as hard or glossy as many of the soaps available to us today. Most modern soaps go through a milling process during manufacture which hardens and polishes them. But the technique of milling soaps was not introduced until the mid- nineteenth century, decades after the end of the Regency. Early nineteenth-century bar soaps were typically made in large slabs from which bars were cut as needed for each customer. Even this type of bar soap was significantly more expensive than soft soap. This less expensive soap was used even in aristocratic homes. The family might use bar soap for their personal bathing, but often the servants only had soft soap for their own ablutions. Soft soap would also be used for most household cleaning and laundry. Though bar soap-making was mostly left to professional soap-boilers by the opening of the nineteenth century, soft soap was still made at home by the poor and those in remote rural areas. It was also made on the great estates of some families for their household use.
There were a number of improvements in the making of soap after the end of the Regency in addition to the introduction of milling. These improvements enabled even cheaper and more consist soap manufacture. Then, in 1853, the high tax on English soaps was finally repealed. That, and the improving attitudes toward personal cleanliness, radically increased the consumption of soap throughout the population. Within a few years soap-making was transformed from a number of small artisan manufactories to a high-volume, fully-developed industry. By the end of the nineteenth century, bar soap was nearly as inexpensive and commonly available as it is today. But all of that happened many decades after the close of the Regency.
Despite the industrialization of soap-making, even into the twentieth century, in rural areas, people continued to make their own soap. In most places, it was considered women’s work, and was usually done in the autumn, outdoors over an open fire. The ingredients were waste household fats and woodashes which had been gathered and saved throughout the year. My own grandmother made soap as a young woman growing up on a farm in Iowa, producing the family’s annual supply of soap in the course of two or three days of extremely smelly and back-breaking labor. Yet, even to the end of her life, she sometimes lamented not having that home-made soap instead of the bars of "store-bought" soap she was then using.
The next time you happen upon a scene in a Regency novel in which soap is in use, you will be much more aware of precisely what type of soap should be present. It is unlikely that a poor family, or one living on a small farm would be using bar soap. Should the hero be forced to spend some time in a tiny village parsonage, or a remote cottage, it is likely he would be reduced to using soft soap for his personal ablutions, unless he was travelling with his own bar soap. In the great houses, servants would typically have only soft soap available to them, while those they serve would have high-quality fragrant bar soaps for their personal use. It is quite possible they would be using Pears soap. A heroine fresh from the country staying in one of these houses might be using bar soap for the first time. Most large coaching inns along main roads or hotels in large cities would have bar soap available for their guests, though they would probably use soft soap for their own washing and cleaning. The Prince Regent might make a present of very fine bar soap to one of the characters, or they might make of gift of special soap to him, knowing he would be very pleased and charmed by such a gift.