Soap and the Victorians 'Cleanliness is next to Godliness'

Advert for Sunlight Soap with a girl and dog in the snow. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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.

<p>Vintage soap and combs</p>
<p>Vintage illustration of&nbsp; shaving brush</p>

Soap was understood to soften the skin as well as emulsify oils and loosen impurities, allowing the pores of the skin to breathe. It was made from all sorts of fats in the nineteenth century: you could get soap made from animal fats (from cows, pigs and sheep), vegetable fats such as olive, almond and palm oil (but also rapeseed, linseed, and various nuts provided oils for soap manufacture). To the art of making the soap (combining fats with alkaline soda or potash derived from plants such as kelp) by licensed soap makers, was added the skills of the perfumer in a separate industry of scented soap making. The type called ‘Windsor soap’, was made with tallow or suet and olive oil. Cheap fats made cheaper soaps: almond oil smelt of almonds but was expensive, sperm whale oil soap smelt fishy. Soap made from coconut oil could be used in salt water. The chapter on soap in Francis Pear’s book of 1859, listed fats made from ‘kitchen and bone’, horses, and even ‘human fat’: an alarming echo of twentieth century atrocity. Soap mixed with ingredients such as sand and flints, were detergents. Just as now, there was a ready market for fancily coloured, perfumed and shaped soaps. There was also a demand for cheap soaps that were adulterated (ingredients patented as ‘improvements’ included fish-derived gelatine, starch by-products and silica). ‘Inferior yellow soap’ was for working people. Estimates of usage in the period vary: the lobbyists for an end to the soap duty claimed the agricultural labourer used 4 lbs per head per annum, the workman up to 12 lbs per head and wealthy families used up to 30 lbs per head (Case of the Soap Duties, London: Clowes, p.9).

Soap advertisements appeared in newspapers, periodicals and the back of cheap books. Soap was displayed at exhibitions such as the Great Exhibition of 1851: among the wealth of statistics compiled for that iconic international event was the fact that 157,254,000 lbs of soap was made in Britain in 1850 (Guide-book to the Industrial exhibition, London: Partridge and Oakey, p.28). The American exhibits included soap busts and medallion portraits of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and other celebrities and a stained glass window made of coloured soap (London Evening Standard, 12 May 1851, p.1; Bradford Observer, 8 May 1851, p.8).

Soap was advertised as health and beauty products do now, by linking the product to current concerns, e.g., about the health of infants and children, to the desirability of a good complexion, and used celebrity endorsements. Memorably, there was the satire on this in the leading middle-class satirical magazine, Punch, by the cartoonist Harry Furniss (‘Good advertisement’, 26 April 1884, p.26) which ended up being used by the firm in advertisements in periodicals (e.g. Funny Folks). A tramp writes a letter with his endorsement, mimicking the endorsements of celebrities such as Lillie Langtry (‘Since using Pears Soap I have discarded all others’), by asserting, ‘Two years ago I used your soap, since when I have used no other’). Pears had been a soap manufacturer since the late eighteenth-century, and famed for a transparent soap which had been ‘discovered’ by Andrew Pears in 1807. The beauty and royal mistress Langtry was paid for the right to reproduce her image and signature, in advertisements that appeared even beyond Britain, with the claim, ‘a perfectly pure soap, it keeps the pores open [a Victorian hygienic reformer’s obsession], the complexion clear, and the hands and skin soft’. In the American Peterson’s Magazine the celebrity American Congregationalist clergyman Henry Ward Beecher also asserted for the benefit of the firm:

Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Soap must be considered as a Means of Grace and a Clergyman who recommends moral things should be willing to recommend Soap. [Peterson’s Magazine, Philadelphia, September 1885, p.275]

When the excise duty was removed, British soap was exported around the world. In the 1830s and 1840s there was an Association of London and Country Soap Manufacturers (see the pamphlet Case of the Soap Duties, 1846) which lobbied for the end of this tax.

<p>Pears Soap vintage historical advert&nbsp;</p>
<p>"A Soap Certificate" (satire of an advertising testimonial), from Harry Furniss, Confessions of a Caricaturist (1902).<br></p>

As Cassell’s Household Guide informed its readership in 1869, the ‘use of soap is the most sure way of purifying the surface of the body’ (vol. 1, p.45). It added, after suggesting washing just select parts of the anatomy, ‘at least once a week the whole body should be soaped’. Soap promised to bring cleanliness to the filthy bodies and clothes of the nineteenth century, as if a quick scrub with carbolic could transform the waifs and strays as in the philanthropist Barnardo’s propagandist ‘before and after’ photographs, into respectable Victorians. But there was a darker side to soap manufacturing and the soap industry. The advertisements, for one, played on racism, with their trope of the African body being soaped white (on which, see Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest and Anandi Ramamurthy’s Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising). The firm that was created by the grocer’s son William Lever, who made his fortune through selling the pre-cut and packaged 1 lb ‘Sunlight’ soap to the nation, built a hygienic idyll for English workers at Port Sunlight in the Wirral but used exploited labour for the production of palm oil in Africa.

In terms of hygiene, soap was presented as a protection against infection in a variety of texts: the chaplain Arthur Brinckman’s Notes on the care of the sick, for example:

A basin of water, soap, and towel should, of course, be always handy for the doctor, and if it is an infectious or contagious case it is as well to make the clergyman or any visitors wash their hands before leaving the house. [Notes on the care of the sick, London: Palmer, 1879, p.38]

 This short essay cannot detail the place that soap had in Victorian culture. It would be interesting, for example, to see how soap figures in the Victorian novel. We are familiar, from the era of the soap-manufacturer-sponsored serials of American daytime radio from the 1940s and 1950s, with the ‘soap opera’: entertainment designed primarily for a female audience. Soap advertisers in the late nineteenth century generated their own soap-related genre of sentimental art with the Frenchman Pierre Édouard Frère’s ‘More Bubbles,’ a companion piece to Millais’, or Fred Morgan’s bath scene with chubby children and puppy.

Soap is good, but no one wishes to be soft soaped (though soft soap was used to treat skins diseases, mixed with sulphur or potassium sulphate) … or be described as soapy (like the apparently oily Victorian bishop of Oxford, and son of the slave-trade abolitionist, Samuel Wilberforce, was). Soap is marvellous … which is why it was such an outrage that it was monopolised or taxed from the seventeenth century in England, until the Victorian era when the duties were first lowered and then abolished by Gladstone in 1853 along with the hated surveillance of soapworks by the Excise Officers. Soap may smell nice, especially through the chemistry that allowed later nineteenth century firms to create artificial scents. But its manufacture also created nuisances such smells (and ‘offensive effluvia’) in boiling down the materials to obtain the fat.

Nevertheless, as the global challenge of Covid-19 makes apparent to us all, we should be learning to appreciate more the value of this substance, which the great nineteenth-century chemist Justus von Liebig linked to the character of a nation and as an index of civilisation:

"The quantity of soap consumed by a nation would be no inaccurate measure whereby to estimate its wealth and civilisation. Political economists, indeed, will not give it this rank; but whether we regard it as joke or earnest, it is not the less true, that, of two countries, with an equal amount of population, we may declare with positive certainty that the wealthier and more highly civilised is that which consumes the greatest weight of soap. This consumption does not subserve sensual gratification, nor depend upon fashion, but upon the feeling of the beauty, comfort, and welfare attendant upon cleanliness; and a regard to this feeling is coincident with wealth and civilisation. The rich, in the middle ages, who concealed a want of cleanliness in their clothes and persons under a profusion of costly scents and essences, were more luxurious than we are in eating and drinking, in apparel and horses. But how great is the difference between their days and our own, when a want of cleanliness is equivalent to insupportable misery and misfortune!"

Justus von Liebig, Familiar letters on Chemistry, and its Relation to Commerce, Physiology, and Agriculture, edited by John Gardner, London: Taylor and Walton, 1843, p.20.


Further reading

Goodman, R. How to be a Victorian (London: Viking, 2013).

Kelley, V. Soap and Water: Cleanliness, Dirt and the Working Classes in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010).

Lewis, B. So Clean: Lord Leverhulme, Soap and Civilization (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008).

McClintock, A. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (Abingdon: Routledge, 1995).

Ramamurthy, A., ‘Soap advertising, the trader as civiliser and the scramble for Africa’, ch.2 in Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).

Primary sources

If you are interested in original texts of soap, you can find a wealth of material available through collections such as Wellcome,, and the historic texts in google books.