Wash yourself cleverly – Time travel in hygiene II.

The selection of toiletries satisfying all existing and non-existing requirements of the consumer society is almost endless: shampoos, toothpastes, shower gels, shower lotions, bath gels, bath balls, body washes and of course the most basic one: soap.

146381.jpgToiletry shopaholics can find vegan or bio products in numberless forms, colours, scents or without scent, enriched with goat milk, coal, fruits, spices or herbal oils on the shop shelves. Ambitious ones can also find courses, where they can learn the expertise of soap boiling. Leaving behind the body care ‘arsenal’ of nowadays, let us look back into the past. Where and how were soaps made, who marketed them and in what were they different in producing and quality from today’s supplies?

Soap? This is grease! 

531984.jpgThe short chemical definition of soap is sodium- or potassium salt of carboxylic acids that can be used for cleansing and washing. Now we are not going to introduce the detailed process of cleaning based on chemical reaction, but we are going to look at how soap is made. Soap-boiling masters used caustic potash and suit for making soap. The caustic potash and suit were dissolved in water, and boiled and stirred in a cauldron for a long time. The result was a white solid crust that was put in lined frames after ninety minutes. Cooled-down soap bars were cut into required-size cubes with a wire or a string, and were put on an airy place to let it harden. Homemade soap was boiled from lard and lye-ashes, but often they used sheep or horse suet, and they made soap even from leftover sausage fat or potatoes. People collected greasy waste until early spring, usually until Easter. In the Great Plain in Hungary, they made lye by sweeping native soda on the bottom of dried lakes and added ash and lime to it. They boiled the ingredients until soap precipitated on the surface. Ready soap was dried in wooden boxes in the attic or on the crossbeam of the room.

In the Middle Ages, Arabic people invented the soap that was made from vegetable ingredients (Aleppo soap). But only the really wealthy people could afford that. The soap that was produced in Europe had to be refined a lot in order to become popular and could be widespread not only for washing but also for body care purposes. At that time, neither its colour nor its smell were inviting due to its material the suit. With the beginning of industrial production, they tried to serve customers increasingly, eliminate deficiencies that they indicated (growing rancid, exuding oil drops, becoming greasy), and use additives that give pleasant scent to the product. Beloved scents were lemon, lavender, violet, rose, lilac, almond and coco. Soaps made from vegetable oils became more and more popular due to their more beneficial features. 252300.jpg The development of infrastructure allowed producing from palm and coco oil as well. A less known fact is that Artúr Görgey – general of the 1848/49 war of independence – contributed to the perfection of soap indirectly. He was the first to detect lauric acid, responsible for foaming of soaps, in coconut oil. Instead of a scientific career, he had a historical task on the battlefield, as you know. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, soap got a really good reputation owing to the developments, and the prospering advertising industry also found its opportunities in that. In 1894, one could read soap popularizing slogans even on the verso of postal stamps of New Zealand. The three general steps of today’s modern soap making: saponification, when different oils and fats are put in reaction with lye. This process is already controlled by computers. The second step, drying is done by thermo- and vacuum-driers. Finally, granule is mixed with perfume and other additives, and then it is coloured. The pieces are thickened and they get their final forms in the soap press.

Flourishing and decaying of soap-making guilds

Though it is not known exactly when soap appeared in the history of humankind, the fact is that materials containing soap were used already thousands of years ago for different purposes: to dress leathers, for mummification, as hair grease, as medical drugs. 543471.jpgNor the Greek-Roman world left behind any relics that would testify if soap had been used for cleansing their bodies. The cleaning effect of water was increased by clay, sand, ash and afterwards aromatic oils, which were cleared off from their bodies with a special scraping tool, the strigil. The predecessor of today’s soap was first mentioned in 385 A.D., though Roman historian Pliny the Elder had written about the cleaning effect of the Gauls’‘sapo’ made from goat fat and ash in his work ‘Natural History’. According to certain views, the word soap originates from the word ‘sapo’. Based on period records, the practice of soap boiling could begin around 800 A.D. Charlemagne ordered that soap-boiling artisans had to be employed on feudal tenures. In Hungary, the first master soap maker worked in Sopron in 1379. In the course of time, the number of masters increased and they formed guilds; their most successful guild was in Debrecen. Their products were of so high quality that they were marketed not only locally and in the neighbouring towns, but they also transported a significant quantity to Upper Hungary and Transylvania. Their annual production exceeded two thousand hundredweights.437917.jpg In the 17th century, soaps with lavender- and rose oil were boiled as well. Due to the strict guild regulation, their products matched the period’s most popular soaps of Paris and Venice. According to the regulation, if someone made bad quality ‘unworthy’ soap, he had to pay a fine and had to make the whole amount of soap again. A rather interesting question is how much soap consumption for body care spread in Europe. Although the first soap-boiling guilds were established in Prague and Vienna at the beginning of the 14th century, soap production flourished in the area of the Mediterranean Sea and later in Marseilles too; the mass consumption became typical only as of the 18th century. We know from a letter from 1672 that even a detailed instruction manual was sent to an aristocratic lady with an Italian soap package gift. Washing- and natural soaps could be bought at markets. Mostly citizens of country towns bought washing soaps as well, but it could be rather expensive, if we consider that a woman from Marosvásárhely initiated court action in a soap theft case in 1640. Naturally, most housewives could boil soap. However, homemade soaps had worse quality, but due to their cheapness, they could compete with guilds’ products. 355603.jpgThus, soap-makers urged the toilet-soap production increasingly. But they were expelled from this field too, because soap factories appeared with cheaper and wider range of products. Nevertheless, we know a master soap-maker, who was active even during the 1970s in the 13th district of Budapest. He roamed rural villages for weeks in order to collect the necessary amount of fat base material.

Spoilt for choice: the start of industrial production

In Hungary, the industrial production started in Pest in 1831, in master soap-maker József Hutter’s factory that became one of the companies with the highest turnover in the country in the 1930s. During this period, Flora soap factory also became a part of the Hutter Co. In the second half of the 19th century, shops specialized in selling perfumery were opened one after the other. Owners and shop assistants were chemists or qualified druggists. After receiving qualification, they dealt in medicines, chemicals, poisons, medical- toilet- and household commodities. A special school was founded for the sector by one of the vigilant pharmacists of the period, István Bartha, who directed Molnár and Moser’s Laboratory in the beginning, and then he bought several famous drugstores, because he saw the business opportunity in them. Nándor Neruda’s shop “To the Golden Beehive”, founded in 1872, was also like that.8061.jpgOn the basis of their price list of 600 items from 1912, they expected customers with a rather varied range of products: Hungarian and foreign perfumery and toiletry (cologne, blusher, face powder, face and hand creams, hair paste, hair tonic, tooth powder, tooth brush, shaving lotions and tools, moustache twirler), household commodities, disinfectants, medical bandages, photographical chemicals, and in addition tea, rum, medicinal candies, medicinal wines and spices. Among the numberless drugstores, there was another outstanding one: the drugstore “To the Black Dog”, which stirred a lot of scandal due to the dog on the sign. It belonged to pharmacist Kelemen Földes from Arad, who invented the famous “Margit Créme of Földes” and soap in his lab. There was also wholesaler Kálmán Brázay’s variety store, where not only colonial goods were sold, but also rubbing alcohol invented by the owner, and soap and beauty-care products. Hermann Baeder established Baeder Perfumery Co. in 1929, and it also became a significant cosmetics producing company of the 20th century. The well-known brand name Caola was born in 1932. Baeder named the products after his daughter Carola, who usually introduced herself as Caola, because she could not pronounce her name yet properly. We must mention that the common customs borders with Austria favoured Austrian firms on the Hungarian market. As of the 1900s, products of the Schicht brothers, for example “Deer” and “Key” soaps became very popular. Reacting to the unequal competition, Hungarian soap-makers established the Association of Hungarian Soap Manufacturers and launched a rhyming anti-boycott in the professional magazine Magyar Drogista in order to counterweigh the popularity of Schicht soap. After 1945, smaller and bigger single shops were socialized. The Perfumery and Cosmetics Company that was established in 1961 incorporated Elida Soap Factory and the Caola name-giving Baeder Perfumery Co. as well among others.265183.jpg Their products that might be familiar are Derby, body-care products Camea, Ocean soap and Gabi toothpaste. The new brands of the sixties: Babaszappan (baby soap), Kék vörös (blue red), Levendula (lavender) and Amo. During the ‘80s, toilet-soaps and western soap brands also functioned as a kind of prestige object, especially in rural areas. This is the reason why soapboxes got into wardrobes, vitrines and on TV sets instead of bathroom shelves. After the spreading of chemical soaps, nowadays we are living in the heyday of handmade soaps again, parallel with mass production. Just cope with the choice!


Translated by: Zita Aknai


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