Opinion: Coming clean on soap


Commentary by Ward Degler 

We’ve mostly forgotten by now what it was like in Europe right after World War II. There were extreme shortages of everything. One of the the greatest needs was soap. People couldn’t bathe, wash their hands or launder clothes. Even a small hotel bar of Ivory soap was priceless.

In 1945, 22 American charitable organizations formed the CARE Relief Organization and started shipping food packages to Europe. For $10, Americans could ship a package to an individual in Germany, France, Belgium or England.

The need for soap was apparent, and in 1949 Lever Brothers sponsored a campaign to add bars of Swan bath soap to CARE packages. The promotion was advertised on the Bob Hope radio show and in Life magazine. I was unable to reach anyone at Unilever to find out how many bars of Swan soap were ultimately included in the packages, but the goal was a bar of soap for every one of 30 million children.

The history of soap is part chemistry, part religion and part accident. The ancient Romans sacrificed animals on Mt. Sapo. The fat seeped into the Tiber River, and women washing clothes found they became cleaner when scrubbed in the oily residue. Clay cylinders dating back to 2000 B.C. containing fats boiled with wood ashes were found at the site of ancient Babylon.

Soap making was readily known from ancient times, and the craft was probably put to work in the years following World War II in Europe, especially in rural areas. Soap making involved creating alkali by boiling wood ashes in water and combining it with animal fat. The result was a harsh but effective lye soap used mostly for washing clothes.

Modern soap making has its roots in the Aleppo area of Syria. These early soaps used laurel and olive oils instead of animal fat. Castile soap was made in Spain using only olive oil because laurel oil was not available. The result was a rich, moisturizing soap that is still cherished as a bath soap today.

On a whim one day, my dad decided to make soap. He boiled a bucket of water with ashes from our wood-burning stove. After straining out the ashes, he added pork fat and cooked the soupy liquid until it congealed into a corrosive brown solid.

I think Mom used it once when washing clothes, but went back to using Rinso when her hands broke out in blisters. When we moved a couple years later, I think we threw out the remaining bars.

Dad wondered if we should send them to Europe. Mom refused, saying that the folks over there had already suffered enough.


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