Friday, July 17, 2015

Charm it With Smiles and Soap

by Jude Knight

Next time you wash your hands, think about soap.

Soap is made by mixing two things that don’t easily mix: fat (or oil) and an alkali. Boiled together to make a slurry, they produce a substance that can ‘catch up’ grease and oil in a form that makes these contaminants easy to wash away.

5000 years ago, the Sumerians were using such a slurry to wash cloth before it was dyed. Similar recipes were used in Egypt and Rome. However, soap was too harsh for washing skin, too expensive for any but the wealthy, and smelt awful. When the Romans bathed, they rubbed their skin with oil and scraped it to remove the oil and any dirt that stuck to it. And they also used sand.

By 1000 AD, the Arabs were making a gentler soap that could be used for bathing, using olive oil as the base.

Olive Oil Soap Recipe
Olive-oil-based soap spread around the cities of the Mediterranean soap makers carefully passing on secret recipes to their apprentices. In England, though, soaps continued to be made from waste animal fats.

By the sixteenth century, England was importing oil to make soap, but it was very expensive and used only by the wealthy. They still used tallow (from waste animal fats). But the growing trend was to use train oil, extracted from whale blubber through a very smelly process of rendering through boiling.

Most soap was still pretty much in slurry form —a brownish jelly, with or without added perfumes, that would burn the skin if used too soon. Customers would buy it by the ladle full - or the barrel. It was used to wash floors, dishes, clothes, and people.

Bar soap was more expensive. It was made by adding salt (at the end of the boiling). Soap makers made one long bar and cut off pieces as they were needed. Bar soap also had to be stored for at least a month before it was safe to use.

The extra process wasn’t what kept the price out of the reach of all but the wealthy, though. Bar soap was seen as a luxury and taxed heavily.

Ash was used as the alkili, the other ingredient in both soft and bar soap. The ash came from burning trees. In the 18th century, many pioneers in the United States supplemented their income by making potash (woodash leashed in water, which is then evaporated) or pearlash (potash baked in a kiln to get rid of impurities) for the British soap making industry. And huge acreages of trees were cut and burned.

Pears Soap Advertisement
Pears soap, invented by a London barber in 1779, was the most popular brand of soap for the wealthy by the late Georgian era, and Andrew Pears, said barber, did very well on it. His soap was highly-refined, gentle on the skin, and scented.

In 1791, a French chemist developed a process using sodium carbonate rather than potash or pearlash. This should have made soap cheaper, but the tax on bar soap kept it out of the reach of all but the most affluent households.

Soap making

By the Regency period, wealthy people could buy soap made from a variety of oils, with many different perfumes, and in a range of moulded shapes. Still a luxury item, they were given as diplomatic gifts, and would only be used above stairs in great households. Below stairs and in more modest homes, semi-liquid soap (often made at home in rural areas) continued to be the cleaner of choice.

In my novel, A Baron for Becky, the Marquis of Aldridge is a wealthy man who uses the finest bar soap money can buy. Aldridge being Aldridge, he has a preference. (Of course he does.) He has his soap made to an exclusive Merry Marquis recipe from a mix of cottonseed, olive, and cocoa oil, scented with a blend of wintergreen, almond, and bergamot. These soaps are made in moulds in the shape of a lozenge stamped with the double MM of his nickname, formed in such a way that a casual observer might think it was a particularly ornate A.


Jude Knight started writing fiction when she was still at school, but went on to spend many years as a commercial writer. In late December 2012, she came home from her mother’s funeral determined to finally achieve the dream her mother had always supported.

After more than a year collecting ideas, doing research, and creating plots and character sketches, she stopped procrastinating and started writing. Her first novella was published just before Christmas in 2014, and – to Jude’s awed surprise – hit several Amazon bestseller lists in both the US and the UK where it has sat for six months, occasionally reaching the top 2 in the US and the very top in the UK.  With three more publications for 2015—one in April, one in August, and one in October—Jude manages to keep busy.  Jude is also part of a collaborative group of writers, the Blusetocking Belles, so watch for their boxed set just before Christmas 2015.

Jude chose 1 April as the launch date for Farewell to Kindness in honour of all the people who told her that she’d never achieve anything if she didn’t get her head out of a book.

In Jude’s books, you’ll find strong determined heroines, heroes who can appreciate a clever capable woman, and villains you’ll love to loathe. The novel plots tend towards the gothic, with a leavening of humour, and some insights into the similarities and differences between now and way back then.

Jude thinks her Mum would have liked them.

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  1. This was fun to research and write. Thanks so much for having me.

  2. A great reminder of what a luxury cleanliness once was—and still is in places.

    1. I find it interesting that liquid soap was once the ordinary, and bar soap the luxury. How times change!

  3. Very fascinating post and you actually answered a question my hubby and I had about the series Spartacus! We couldn't figure out why they were scraping themselves with sticks all the time lol.

  4. Hi Jude, very, very interesting. I love olive oil based soap and brought some back from France this month. anne stenhouse

    1. I live in one of the finest olive growing regions in New Zealand, Anne, and some of the neighbours make lovely soap.


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