Fifty-Seven Old Women Who Never Used Soap

WHEN Thoreau immortalized the anonymous old woman who lived under a hill (and if she’s not dead, she’s living there still) he opened a vista into universal history that has many whimsical aspects. The comparative hygienic habits of this old woman and her predecessors are an aspect that can be treated with delicacy perhaps and still make the inquiry piquant.

If this old woman were a hundred years old and touched hands with another who lived a century before her, and so on back to Mother Eve, there would be only sixty, all in a row. Your great-grandmother, were she a hundred, back to Eve is a respectable party of only sixty old women. Not an unusual tea party, Thoreau says, but their gossip would be universal history, their customs a most enlightening insight into evolution, and their costumes a study in vogue such as no museum has ever attempted.

It is shocking to think that of these sixty old ladies only three of them could ever have used soap. The old woman who nursed Columbus was the fourth. She took a bath in the summer without a detergent and rubbed her skin with a coarse flaxen towel. The twentieth was Cleopatra, whose bath is no mystery in technique or detail. There is a popular impression that the essence of her bath was soap. Essential oils were used in the rite, but the cleansing agent was fine white sand applied by her maids. She came clean by erasure. The makers of abrasives have more right to Cleopatra than the makers of soap. Helen of Troy was the thirtieth, but neither history, legend, nor art has revealed the secret of her perfection, beauty, or hygienic ceremony. Susanna’s bath was composed of the elements of surprise and delight.

But to return to your great-grandmother. Allow that she could procure and did use soap, and maybe so her great-grandmother. Further back than that, though they indexed themselves in the Modern Age, they were hygienic barbarians. Gradually the use of soap has become general, or nearly so, and Liebig says that a nation’s degree of civilization may be judged by the amount of soap it consumes. Our present generation in America consumes more soap than any people in the world. Our use of cosmetics is increasing at almost the same rate, and it is interesting to relate soap to cosmetics in their historical origins.

Soap was made crudely centuries ago by the Gauls, but used as a cosmetic and not as a cleanser. This is recorded by the elder Pliny and we have no reason to doubt it. This cosmetic was made from tallow and ashes and it turned the hair a bright red. Goat suet and beechwood ashes produced the most popular and fashionable results. It is perplexing to evaluate the discovery of soap properly, for its origin is so confused in vanity. Another historian credits the invention of soap, or a mixture that perhaps was the genesis of soap, to a colony of Phoenician settlers in Gaul, who used it as a salve for eruptions on the body. The lye was made from water and ashes and olive oil was used for the fat. This source is of greater spiritual comfort, because the healing of diseases, while never a proper function of soap, is a more ennobling impulse than the false adornment of the person by discolored hair. Credit the forbears of the French parfumeurs, ironical as it may seem, with the discovery of soda ash made from common salt, and the exact constitution of the fatty acids and of processes for their separation. These two discoveries made possible the manufacture of soap as it is known to us in modern days. And this was at the end of the eighteenth century.

We of the twentieth century are apt to think of soap as a necessity. We feel that the Great Unwashed is a reducible minimum which is gradually being soaped and sudsed and made whiter than snow. Think back eighteen centuries, and then on back to the founding of Rome, to Romulus and Remus, whose mother did not use soap for her babies’ skins but licked them with her tongue. Imagine the millions and millions of people in these ages without soap and then fancy with what pride Thoreau’s old woman under the hill must have exhibited her inexpensive little concoction that gave her both health and social advantage. Poor but clean, she was. Next to her in line was a lady of great refinement, no doubt, but her hygienic habits had been formed in an environment that to us would seem heroic and discouraging. Next to her, was a lady of unascertainable nationality but of undisguised arrogance, for she, third from last in this formidable array of historical characters, was the first to taste the joy and display the benefits of chemically scientific cleanliness. She had reared many children, none of whom had ever discovered a continent or laid the foundation of a Columbian age, yet her nose tilted just a little when she was discussing the proper way to bring up a baby, and she said frankly that the Discoverer of this Continent might have established a more godly land, had he himself had the advantage of higher standards of personal cleanliness!