Soap has an ancient history, literally dating back thousands of years. Made of animal fats, lye, and ashes, the process of making soap was arduous and time-consuming. The “recipes” varied slightly over the centuries and depending on the ingredients available, but no matter what the intended use of the soap (to clean the body or clothing or scrubbing pots) the result was harsh, caustic, and did not smell nice. Not until the 16th to 17th centuries did the civilized countries of the East and Europe discover ways to make soaps that were softer and scented. For a long while these recipes were closely held trade secrets, the produced soaps difficult to attain and very expensive.
By the 18th century, improved trade routes allowed the shipping of olive oil based soaps from Naples, Marseilles, and Spain. Around this same time, chemists developing ways to make soap using potash and pearlash (softer, powdery ash) which led to improved qualities of soaps, both soft and hard. Then, in 1791, French chemist Nicholas Leblanc developed a process for making an alkali (sodium carbonate) from common salt. This new process eliminated the need for potash or pearlash in the making of hard soap, and resulted in much firmer bars of soap. These improved processes also enabled the addition of perfumes into the soaps.
Yet, despite these incredible improvements in the quality of soaps, the actual process of cooking and curing soap was essentially unchanged. Meaning, it took weeks to months from start to finish before soap was ready to be used. By the turn of the century, English soap makers had perfected the art of making both soft and hard-bar soaps. In 1789, Soho barber Andrew Pears not only developed a highly-refined and very gentle soap, he also developed the very first transparent soap. Pears Soap was scented to give it the fragrance of an English garden and was immediately the preferred bar soap among much of the English nobility and affluent gentry. Nevertheless, although cheaper to create than in prior centuries and readily available in England, fine soap was considered a luxury item and as such was highly taxed.
Understanding this brief history of soap is necessary to understand the purpose of the SOAP CONTAINER. Soft, semi-liquid soaps took less time to cure and were commonly used for cleaning clothes, dishes, and other household cleaning. The top quality “bar” soaps required at least an additional month to harden and cure. Hard soap was significantly more expensive and was sold in large slabs from which smaller chunks or bars were cut. Wasting this costly soap, no matter how wealthy one might be, simply wasn’t sensible. Hence the lovely spherical soap containers of silver and brass which became part of a lady’s toilette set. After use, the hard soap chunks were secured inside a soap container, the decorative perforations allowing air to circulate and dry the soap.
Interestingly, some soap containers were sold in a matched set with the other spherical container solid (without the decorative piercings). In a couple of descriptions the solid, airtight container was noted to be for keeping a sponge damp (which makes sense). However, in the description of a matching set from 1739 designated for a gentleman rather than a woman (image above, top middle) it says, “The decorative piercing on the sponge box had a practical purpose: it allowed air to circulate to dry the damp sponge. The unpierced box accommodated a piece of soap, which, in the eighteenth century, was purchased in a ball rather than a bar.” Perhaps one take away is that it depended upon the individual person’s needs! But, to be fair, it is true that some soap makers molded softer soaps into balls.