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Sarah Hampson: Why I’m in a lather about bar soap’s slow demise Add to ...

I like the way it comes wrapped in pretty paper, like a small present. It is often curved or round, smooth as marble and always small. A minature, dissolvable sculpture. You can hold it between the palms of your hands, turning it over and over in the comfort of ritual. You can hold it to your nose and breathe in, a scent as gentle and natural as the bloom of a rose.

I admit it. I’m a bar-soap person, a predilection that puts me now in a sub-genre, akin to loving steampunk or something.

These days, the practice of washing with a bar of soap is considered quaint, like reading newspapers and printed books with tattered edges or writing thank you letters on monogrammed stationery. (Okay, I do those things, too.) But before you start imagining that I milk my own cows or make canned-tuna-fish recipes from the Depression, be reassured that in most other ways I engage in modernity, just not the trend that dictates my soap should be a germ-annihilating, overly perfumed liquid concoction in a plastic bottle with a pump dispenser. That is often not soap, but a soup of stuff, including chemicals such as triclosan, an active ingredient in many anti-bacterial liquids. For one thing, I would never retreat to my bath with a plastic bottle. That would be like eating caviar with a dollop of ketchup.

It was four years ago that body wash eclipsed bar soap sales, according to Euromonitor International. Recently, there has even been speculation that Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer-products company, will kill Ivory, its iconic soap brand, because of plummeting sales. The company is reportedly assessing its lineup of brands in an effort to clear out weaker performers and concentrate on more profitable ones. In the late seventies, Ivory had more than a 20-per-cent share of the bar-soap market and was a leading dish-soap brand. Now, it has just 3.4 per cent, down from 4.2 per cent a decade ago, according to Euromonitor. Despite efforts to revitalize the brand – including the introduction of new products, a logo redesign three years ago and recent social-media campaigns – the sales of Ivory products have continued to go down the drain.

“Ivory was the beginning of the middle classes using bar soap. We never used soap in the West until Ivory Soap,” says Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. “If Ivory goes, that’s the end of this perfect circle.” While soap as an effective household cleaning agent has been used since Babylonia in 2800 BC, it was only in the 1870s that Colgate Palmolive and Procter & Gamble invented soaps (known as toilet soaps) that were inexpensive, mild enough for the skin and stable. Before the mass-market toilet soaps, there was Castile soap, made from the best olive oil in the Castile region of Spain, but it was expensive, Ashenburg notes. “It was used by rich women like a cosmetic or perfume – truly a luxury product.”

Ivory, invented in 1879, was like absolution in the palm of your hand. More than just promising cleanliness, it suggested purity. It was white. And it floated and was “99.44 per cent pure.” Harley Procter, son of a P&G co-founder, had gone to church one Sunday. After listening to a psalm about “ivory palaces,” he decided on the name for a soap the company was simply going to describe as white. That it floated had been a production error caused when a factory worker left the boiler machine on too long. The worker made the batch anyway, thinking the error wouldn’t make much difference. But when customers wrote in, gushing about the soap that floats, the company took notice. “The story of Ivory is really when soap and advertising formed this unholy alliance. They grew up together,” Ashenburg says. “Soap is pretty much soap. You need advertising to differentiate.”

And now that creative hocus-pocus is being applied to the liquid lineup of body soaps, a $2.3-billion business in the U.S. (no figures are available for Canada) that accounts for 44 per cent of total retail sales, having gained 30 per cent between 2008 and 2013, according to figures from Mintel Research. This increase occurred despite the fact that research from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that anti-bacterial liquids are no more effective at sanitizing than good, old-fashioned soap. They are also more expensive. And we tend to go through them faster – all that generous squirting!

The good news for bar-soap people is that an artisanal movement in the craft of soap making has been growing, in part as a reaction to the mass-produced goop. I have not always been a bar-soap snob, but I am fast becoming one. A few years ago, I visited Èze, a pimple of a hill town on the plains of southern France, and discovered Fragonard Parfumeur, which turns soap making into a fine art. They create soaps in the shapes of hearts and roses. Colourful egg soaps come in a carton. Each is made with natural ingredients. You almost don’t want to use them, they’re so delicate and beautiful.

The appeal of bar soap, at least to me, is part nostalgia. I remember both of my grandmothers loving Roger & Gallet soaps. I have memories of being sent as a child to a bath with a bar of soap, slapped into my hand. As a mother of newborns, I loved the ritual of soaping up their perfect little bodies in their baths, an expression of love and intimacy. Some manufacturers are recognizing this longing for the past. Last year, Proctor & Gamble introduced an Old Spice bar soap.

When the world is so fast, some quiet, peaceful rituals are needed: family dinners, screen-free afternoons – and long, luxurious soaks with a bar of soap.

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