The Culture Of Clean: A History Of Artisan Soap Makers

Kirk's Natural Castile Soap
Basis Sensitive Skin Bar
Pears Transparent Soap
Yardley of London

Here’s a trip down memory lane for you: I remember one Christmas during my preteen years when all really I wanted was Jergens “state of the art” Body Shampoo in my stocking. It came in a plastic box with a blue and white sponge, and the sponge featured a little round well that you were supposed to fill with their newfangled liquid soap. Commercials for the product promised a sexy, saxy future, and I was still wallowing in a world of kid showers: sad bars of soap, and no razors allowed. This breakthrough body shampoo “system” was going to be my gateway to smooth legs and revolutionary, womanly cleanliness, I just knew it. It had to be mine.

Well, I did get the Jergens and my prediction came true: months after that yuletide acquisition, I embarked on a lifetime of shaving, and many years of liquid body wash loyalty, minus some (or a lot) of the anticipated glamour. My story is not unique; from the early ‘90s till now, body wash has reigned supreme in the personal hygiene market. It was not until recently, driven partly by thriftiness, partly by half-hearted environmentalism, that I began to revisit the soaps of my youth. I’ve written about my continent-spanning love for Cleopatra, but bar soap’s heritage brands (think Ivory, Dove, Irish Spring) deserve some attention, if not for their effectiveness or ingredients, then at least for their talismanic power.

This series, "The Culture Of Clean," is about the cultural impact of bar soap, not about its pros and cons. Perhaps, 50 years from now, when we’re getting clean in our sleep via laser technology, allusions to body wash will flood the literary canon, and shower gel will be sung about in ballads, interpreted on gallery walls.

There was an art to soap-making before people made soap into art. Based on early records, the basic formula has remained the same over time: soap comes from combining either plant oil or animal fat with an alkaline base (a.k.a. lye or sodium hydroxide). Scent, shape, and quality varied regionally, and by the Middle Ages, buoyed by Silk Road trade, small-scale manufacturers (or guilds) had formed, their products becoming sought after commodities. Most notable of these early soap-makers were those based in Aleppo (now in modern Syria), and Nablus (in Palestine), and later in Castile, Provence, and Marseilles. White Nabulsi soap is known for being pure and unscented; Savon d’ Alep is made with olive and laurel oils; Savon de Marseille is infused with salt water from the Mediterranean. Castile soap, once preferred by royalty, now refers to any soap made with a plant-based oil

Painstaking, beautiful processes are employed to maintain the legacies of such soaps—pouring, cutting, stamping, and curing handled with the utmost care. While the tradition of soap-making has thrived in some of these cities (bricks of Savon de Marseille are familiar imports), it barely survives in others. Sadly, war and sanctions have created near-impossible working conditions for the artisans of Syria and Palestine.

Mass-produced, commercial bar soap began to appear at the beginning of the 19th century. In England, Pears and Yardley of London became household staples. In America, popular brands like Palmolive and Ivory launched advertising campaigns so relentless (and, in their early days, so racist) they earned the product a permanent place in our cultural lexicon (see: -opera, -box, -derby, wash your mouth out with-, don’t drop the-, et al). And it wasn't just in language that these associations grew. Soap has continued to bubble up in film, literature, art, and design. While the grudge match between bar and liquid rages on in supermarkets and drugstores, the bar is clearly where the art’s at.

—Lauren Maas

Lauren Maas is an Austin-based writer and editor. Photos by Ben Jurgensen.

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  • Addison Cain

    One of my guilty pleasures is browsing homemade soaps on Etsy. Bar soaps are so awesome in my opinion.

    • Haiku Jew

      I love Etsy soaps
      and have quite a collection
      go green and be clean!

    • Helena

      I adore browsing the soaps on Etsy, too! Also, whenever I travel, I try to find local, handmade soap as my souvenir. Soap geeks unite!

      • Addison Cain

        yes! Love that idea!

  • Sarah

    This is awesome! I love bar soap, who knew its history was so interesting.

  • Sara H-B

    I use bar soap when I have a few more minutes to spare in the shower - I love the feel of it and the scents are so much nicer than the artificial smell from body wash (despite the name on the bottle, every kind from the same brand just sort of smells the same) It is a time saver though, no doubt about it, squeeze and go. My mother has always been against body wash, saying she never really feels clean after using it, she always has lovely bar soaps instead.

  • LB

    I love Kirk's Castile. Been using it for years, it's the most foamiest and cleanest soap! Kirk's and coconut oil, my skin has never looked and felt better.

  • grace b

    I think that the worst scent on the planet is Irish Spring. I had a childhood friend who used it and probably their laundry detergent was Irish Spring? I dunno. That smell permeated every part of their house, their car, their clothes. UGH. Can't stand it. My boyfriend bought some once and I just hate it! Not because I hated this girl, it's just such a strong sense memory for me I guess!

  • Amyzz

    I don't use anything other than my Dove bar for washing my skin since I have eczema and urticaria. I think they sell Nabulsi soap where I live so I might have to give it another go. My mother still uses it but I stopped when I was a teenager just because I wasn't a huge fan of the scent

  • Amyzz

    Do you take then with you back after using then when you're on holiday? If so how? In ziplock backs?

    • Vanessa V

      Yes, ziploc bags work great!

  • JY

    How long does Fresh bar soap last?

    • Vanessa V

      They're huge so they last around 4 months or so. I love the milk scented one!

  • Janine

    The only things I wash my body with is Dr. Bronner's and bar soap. My favorite bar soap right now is from Shore Soap in Newport RI. Their "Warm Sand" smells like suntan lotion. Love. Thanks, ITG.

  • Macey

    a specially picked bar of soap is a favorite treat to exchange with my lover.

  • Class Versus Sass

    Love Bar soap:) I just like how it smells so clean and simple

  • Evelyn Brockmann

    I used to turn up my dirty nose at soap for a way too long time - too harsh and fresh was the memory of being soap scrubbed by a very ruthless aunt.
    Then came the realisation that indeed a soap could be everything - your comforter, your bathroom decoration, your fragrance, your massage-bar and your moisturiser.
    If any of you ardent ITG-comment-reading-beauties happens to come to Budapest -
    Your bath routine or indeed your skin and general well being will be lifted to a whole new level of AWESOME.

  • Evelyn Brockmann

    And they are just so gorgeous. Sorry if these seems slightly pushy product placement but I doubt anyone was planning to delve into Hungarian Handmade Cosmetics. But remember we are the country of Omorovicza! ;)

  • Ellen Defaut

    Today's Artisan Soap Makers are giving individuals an opportunity to indulge in a true shower experience of luscious, skin-loving lather and scents that help give us the brain-fix we need to face the world at large (outside our boudoir). These bars of plant oil-based soap blended and cured lovingly in our home soaping salons have a heft, lather and scent that is emollient and cleansing without comparison.


Marius Fabre
Savon d'Alep
L'Occitane en Provence
L'Occitane Bonne Mere Soap
Yardley of London
Yardley of London Moisturizing Bars
Basis Sensitive Skin Bar Soap
Pears Gentle Care Transparent Bar
Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari
Maurizio Cattelan And Pierpaolo Ferrari Bitten Soap