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British Expat Newsletter:
5 December 2007

Hello, and welcome to those who have joined up since our last newsletter.

In this issue

  • This week: Soap
  • Virtual Snacks
  • Bizarre Searches
  • Quotation and joke

This week

(We cover a different topic each week – about anything and everything. If this week’s topic doesn’t interest you, don’t worry – it’ll be about something totally different next time.)

I always find it interesting to look more closely at an everyday product, one which almost everyone uses, but completely takes for granted. A couple of years ago we wrote about salt and its “profound influence on politics, economics, religion, science, and, last but not least, culinary history”.

We received quite a bit of positive feedback about that piece and so I thought we could do something similar again. I happened to be standing in the shower at the time and didn’t have to look very far for a suitable taken-for-granted product – soap.

Various apocryphal stories have it that there was a Mount Sapo where the Romans first discovered soap after sacrificing animals there – the tallow’s supposed to have mixed with wood ash and clay and formed a stuff which made clothes easier to clean, and it was named “sapo” after the mountain. In fact, soap or something like it had already been discovered much earlier, by both the Egyptians and the Indians, and the Romans seem to have had little idea of soap’s cleaning properties; they used to clean themselves using oil and a skin-scraper called a strigil.

Soap really got going as a result of the work of those leaders of mediaeval chemistry: the Muslims. They used vegetable oils, aromatic oils and lye (caustic soda) to produce soaps which were chemically identical to the bars we use today. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that one term for soap made using only vegetable oil and no animal fat is Castile soap, since Castile (in modern-day Spain) is where the Muslim and European civilisations had most contact with each other in the Middle Ages. But that’s just speculation. As for Britain, the earliest mentioned soap-making centres appear to have been Bristol in the 12th century, followed by Coventry, York and Hull about 100 years after that. It wasn’t produced in London in any volume until the 16th century.

Legend has it that the French don’t use soap. Although it seems to be true that the French buy less soap than the British, they’re certainly no strangers to it – Marseille soap, otherwise known as “savon de Marseille”, has been made around that city for about 700 years using broadly the same ingredients: water from the Mediterranean, olive oil (occasionally palm oil, or palm and copra oil) and soda ash from sea plants.

The first famous soap manufacturer was Andrew Pears from Mevagissey in Cornwall, who moved to London in 1789. Apparently while working as a barber in Gerrard Street in Soho he noticed the soft complexions of his clients and realised that there was a market for a gentle soap. Trial and error resulted in his discovering the transparent soap which is still the hallmark of Pears soap. Its advertisement in the late 19th century featuring Millais’s painting Bubbles was famous, as was another featuring Lillie Langtry writing a testimonial: “I first used your soap two years ago, since when I have used no other!” However, humorous magazine Punch did an even more famous lampoon of the testimonial advert, in which a filthy tramp was writing. Pears’ Cyclopaedia later reproduced this as their frontispiece in some editions!

The fact that a soap-making company should turn to publishing a book of useful facts wasn’t anything particularly strange to the late Victorians; industrial philanthropy had caught on widely by then. Perhaps the most lasting testimonial to it was an entire new town: Port Sunlight, built on the Wirral Peninsula by the Lever Brothers for the employees at their new factory there. It incorporated a cottage hospital, schools, a concert hall, swimming pool, church and 800 houses, all of them unique – in all, there are 900 Grade II listed buildings there. Small wonder that it’s been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

On the other hand, the fact that a soap-making company should be so keen to advertise wasn’t surprising either. As Thomas A. Barratt, Pears’s pioneering advertising manager noted, “Any fool can make soap. It takes a clever man to sell it.” And it was the never-ending quest to sell more soap – directed squarely at the housewives who were buying it – that led to the rise of the soap opera on radio in the 1930s, so called because the soap companies, recognising that the episodic, often romantic dramas with their cliff-hanging instalment endings were just what housewives were looking for, sponsored them up to the hilt. Even nowadays in the UK, when men are almost as likely to watch a soap opera as women, the adverts tend to relate to household products and grocery items.

Next time you wash your hands perhaps you’ll see the humble bar of soap a little differently.

Do you have anything to say about this topic? Or do you have some suggestions for other issues we might discuss in our weekly email? Why not comment and tell us?

Virtual Snacks

Just a few suggestions if you have a little time to spare:

The Pharmaceutical Journal has an interesting article about the history of soap, written with a UK focus.

Port Sunlight’s Village Community website has lots of good stuff about the history of the village, its architecture, and some of its showpiece buildings, with plenty of illustrations.

And if you want to find out what’s going on in all the UK TV soaps (yes, including the Aussie ones too), you can do that on the What’s On TV magazine website.

Bizarre Searches

Some strange search terms which have led people to visit British Expat recently:

  • neepshed
  • pattaya seafood sex
  • small small brick briges
  • metrication scotland
  • boulder of the tinking metal spheres
  • why do people make banitza
  • the penalty for masturbation in indonesia is decapitation a hoax?
  • why do people get so upset about nudity?
  • where can you buy bacardi
  • infidelity forum

Till next time…
Happy surfing!

Kay & Dave
Editor & Deputy Editor
British Expat Magazine


Two quotations this time round – from apparently opposing points of view!

“Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre but they are more deadly in the long run.”

– Mark Twain, US author (1835-1910)

“Cleanliness and order are not matters of instinct; they are matters of education, and like most great things, you must cultivate a taste for them.”

– Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister and author (1804-1881)


A first-grade teacher collected well-known proverbs. She gave each child in her class the first half of a proverb and asked them to come up with the remainder of the proverb. Their insight may surprise you.

  • Better to be safe than . . . punch a 5th grader
  • It’s always darkest before . . . daylight savings
  • You can lead a horse to water but . . . how?
  • Don’t bite the hand that . . . looks dirty
  • If you lie down with dogs, you’ll . . . stink in the morning
  • Happy the bride who . . . gets all the presents
  • Don’t put off till tomorrow what . . . you put on to go to bed
  • Children should be seen and not . . . spanked or grounded
  • You get out of something what you . . . see pictured on the box
  • Better late than . . . pregnant

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