We are all acutely aware in the era of Covid-19 of the cleansing properties of even a humble bar of soap to wash away the bacteria and viruses that the era I research as a historian, the nineteenth century, was only starting to be dimly aware of. By coincidence, I was beginning to think about soap as part of my developing interest in environmental histories. It seemed necessary in the age of climate crisis, to consider how historians can contribute through their research and writings, to environmental awareness. So I came up with a module with the repellent title of Filth and Victorians, and pleased myself by telling anyone who cared to listen that it was dirty work, but someone had to do it. Which was of course not true, as there is already a significant body of scholarship and popular history on the nineteenth-century environment, the diseased, dirty, and scented body, and the material artefacts, industries, and workers, who ensured that the Victorian mantra of cleanliness being next to godliness, might be realised. There are histories of water supply, drainage, sewerage and plumbing, scents, and soap. There are studies of philanthropic efforts to wash the poor and their clothes through public baths and laundries. There are also histories of fuel and heating systems that increased the possibility of hot water.
But this short blog focuses on that ‘great personal sanitory agent’ (to quote Francis Pears, soap manufacturer), the bar of soap – that artefact which in fact comes in a variety of shapes and which we might have spurned in the recent past for exfoliating scrubs, and still favour less than liquid hand sanitizers. The world of Victorian soap would also include washing soap (wash balls, square cakes), and for men, the shaving soap. It would bring in related questions such as the softness and hardness of the water which affected the rate of consumption (more soap being used in hard water districts such as London).
Soap is of course not a Victorian invention, and its dramatic history includes other episodes such as the attempt in England to create a monopoly, in the reign of James I. But its manufacture on a massive scale became a possibility after the industrial revolution. Coming down to us from that century are household soap names such as Pears’ which was marketed with ingenious advertisements including the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais’ sentimental ‘A Child’s World’, acquired by the firm in 1886 and renamed ‘Bubbles’. The firm also produced a long lasting Pears’ Annual, and even longer lasting Encyclopaedia. There is coal-tar soap – whose manufacturers such as Wright’s (still sold, though no longer made in England), using the medicinal properties of a derivative from the coal industry to make pungent soaps for the masses. Other Victorian medical or antiseptic soap manufacturers included Bristowe’s of London and Calvert’s of Bradford. Carbolic soap was advertised as a ‘disinfecting soap’ for the hospital, infirmary and home, the soap used to deodorise and wash clothes and surfaces. Plymouth was a centre for soap making: in 1848 producing 4,117,170 lbs of hard soap. The Coxside soap works of Bryant, Burnell and Co., burned down in October 1850 when the oil, tallow, and resin inside helped to feed a fire which started in the engine house.