Posted by: lbrooksd | October 24, 2010

Soap Making and Advertising

Imperialist Leather is a book I’ve heard lots of things about and always wants to get into – so far so good.  I’m especially intrigued by Chapter 5 which talks a lot about imperialist advertisements, specifically soap.  I’m kind of into soap – maybe that’s a weird thing to be into, but I like to make my own.  It’s really kind of a cool process:

There are a few different ways to do it, but I generally make cold process soap.  Basically you combine your lye with your melted oils or fats, usually it’s a few different kinds, like olive oil, palm oil and coconut oil, but traditionally this is where the lard comes in.  Then you stir until the mixture traces, which when you’re doing it by hand, can take hours.  Into the molds the soap goes, thick but still pretty soupy at this point, to be popped out after a half day or so, when it will hold it’s shape but still be a little soft, then under the bed for at least a month before it’s usable.  During that time the soap “saponifies” which basically means that the fat/oil is being turned to soap by the acid from the lye.  Before the soap is fully saponified, the lye is still active, so it’s obviously not great for your skin.  The resting time also firms up the soap, but how solid your bars turn out depends a lot on what kind of oils you use also.

It’s interesting to see how fetishized soap was in Victorian times, and that got me to thinking about how we fetishize soap incurrent culture.  Hygiene products in general are a huge market, I don’t even want to know how much money is spent on these commodities every year, and there are certainly trends in the ways that these products are sold.  It’s funny, so many of the body washes and shower gels aren’t even technically soap anymore – without lye they can’t really be considered soap.

I wonder whether you think there are any remnants of the qualities we see in the Imperialist advertisements in the soap/hygiene products of today?  I haven’t seen any monkeys or white aprons in these ads lately, but certainly mirrors are still an image we see again and again – how do you think the symbology behind them has changed, if it has?  Or is there a new quartet of advertising symbology to match the times?

Here’s an easy cold process soap recipe if you’re interested in giving it a whirl.


  1. The first modern soap advertisement that I thought of was the Dove campaign for “Real Beauty” that has been running for the past few years. The campaign is in print and in television commercials, it shows “real” women, not the stereotypical skinny models. However, when I just searched the adds online, I ended up here:
    This commercial is interesting to me as it is about self-esteem, imagining “a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.” This seemed, at first, like a very positive advertisement and I think Dove has been progressive, but here we see beauty and self-esteem going hand in hand with motherhood. The women portrayed would have been adolescents during feminist movement of the late sixties and early seventies, but here they are kept in the domestic sphere. It is a culturally prescribed ideal of what womanhood is, it is safe. So I think that some of the symbology has changed with the times,
    we have curvy women of different races portrayed as confident in their own skin, but it is the same campaign that talks about future, self-esteem, life dreams and goals, reflecting the similar Victorian ideals.

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