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Harmon’s Histories: Soaps of yesteryear could clean the skin right off your bones

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

Sylvia Moss believed there was “no other time since the creation of the world that there had been so good a chance for the average mortal to be happy and comfortable as at the present time.”

The “present time” was February 1880.

Writing for the Rocky Mountain Husbandman newspaper in Diamond City, Montana (a rich placer gold camp along the upper Missouri River), Moss asserted, “The poor laborer has a better house, better food, better lights and better clothing than kings had in the early ages.”

“Who among us could endure to be without soap, combs and hair-brushes to use? There is a saying that ‘cleanliness is akin to godliness,’ and it may not be untrue, for it is a fact we have all noticed that really dirty people seldom have very elevated ideas of men and things.”

And that brings us to today’s subject: soap.

Today’s varieties seem to take up miles of a store’s shelf space. Well, perhaps not miles, just hundreds of yards.

Not so, in the past. Back in the day, folks made their own soap from recipes handed down over time.

Rocky Mountain Husbandman, March 20, 1879

One of the standard formulas called for dissolving a pound of concentrated lye in three gallons of water. Then you would “boll it with four pounds of clear soap fat, and when the grease is all cut, set it away to cool.” You would then “add a gallon of hot water, stir well,” and repeat until “the soap is of the desired consistency.”

Of course, lye wasn’t the best thing for a woman’s hands, so Jake Nelson of Silver Springs invented his own brand of “Chemical Soap,” which he marketed directly to women.

“One can’t tell much about girls now-a-days – they are like a gilt-edged book, ornamented and finely fixed up. To see a girl as she really is—just drop in on her on wash-day when she’s been doing a hard day’s washing with a bar of soft soap.”

“If she uses the common kind of lye-soap her hands and arms will be shriveled up, and her temper out of joint. To avoid this, all that is necessary is to buy a box of the celebrated Chemical Soap manufactured by Jake Nelson at Silver Springs. Girls using this soap, always have their hands in condition to be gently squeezed.”

French & Thomas, a general store in Virginia City, Montana, carried Nelson’s soap along with its “staple and fancy groceries, fine whiskies, wines, cigars and tobacco.”

The Madisonian, December 12, 1874

But given that literally anyone could manufacture a bar or box of soap, consumers had to be cautious.

The Fort Benton Record, in its March 25, 1876 issue, warned of “Dangerous Soap.” One with a heavy amount of potash “caused the death of a child who accidentally ate a little of it; and we have found the same stuff strong enough to remove old hard paint from wood work.”

The newspaper advised readers: “It is much better economy to purchase a quality, even a superior quality, white soap for household purposes; strong alkali soaps should never be used on the skin, as their effect is corrosive and harmful.”

Even worse were reports from French newspapers alleging that certain soaps would cause diseases since they were manufactured from the “fat (of) dead animals, (often) diseased and tainted with mortuary matter.”

The papers alleged that adults, using such soap and “continually rubbing in hot water” would absorb diseases “through the pores of the skin.” This could end up causing people to have “lung fever and kidney diseases.” It further cautioned that “many diseases of children are caused by impure soap,” especially scented soaps.

Helena Weekly Herald, October 28, 1875.

Singled out was “Fine Old Brown Windsor Soap,” which was said to be “manufactured almost entirely from bone grease.”

To counteract the skin problems associated with soaps of the day, the 1877 Helena Weekly Herald recommended that its readers, “Remember that one can have the hands in soap suds with soft soap without injury to the skin if the hands are dipped in vinegar or lemon juice immediately after. The acids destroy the corrosive effects of the alkali, and make the hands soft and white.”

Well, I’m off to the shower now with my favorite bar of soap. But first – I’ll read the label carefully, reviewing ingredients. Great. No lye!

But what the heck is sodium lauroyl isethionate and cocamidopropyl betaine?

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.