Bars of soap are hard to find nowadays — in bathrooms and on supermarket shelves. It’s not that we’ve stopped washing, it’s just that most of us now use liquid soaps for our hands and gels for showering.
I can’t remember the year in which I went over to showering gels but it was a long time ago and it coincided with the Badedas advertising campaign. That was the one in which a man has showered with Badedas and all of a sudden a naked woman (long blonde hair covering her boobs) on a white stallion comes prancing into his life.
I fell for the advertising agency’s not-so-subliminal sexual message and bought a bottle of Badedas in its characteristic yellow plastic bottle. As always happens with these commercials, no beautiful blonde came cavorting into my life when I showered with Badedas but I loved its fresh fragrance and continued to buy it.
They stopped selling Badedas in a yellow bottle (at least in Palma) but I still have the original one and I refill it from a large green bottle.
I didn’t start to use liquid soaps for my hands until about two years ago but I never took to them mainly because the liquid soaps are too thick and the plunger-operated dispensers don’t always work. As I can’t tolerate bad design for very long, I recently went back to bars of soap.
El Corte Inglés in Jaime III had Palma’s best selection of bars of soap but when I went to buy a couple the soap-filled shelves were no longer there. I looked around in the supermarket but couldn’t see any.
Eventually I asked a woman assistant, and although she was in her early 50s, she wasn’t familiar with the Spanish word for toilet soap — jabón de tocador. When I explained what the words meant she pointed out a shelf where a miserly four kinds of soap were on display.
I later found a slightly better selection at Mercadona including a Pears-like glycerine one which will do until I organise a supply from England — if bars of soap still exist there. It wasn’t all that long ago that a bar of soap was a bathroom feature. Absolutely everyone had one — or several. There were a couple on the washbasin and two or three in the bath area.
Bars of soap were advertised in newspapers and magazines and some of the international brands appeared in TV commercials. We were told that nine out of 10 film stars used Lux toilet soap. It wasn’t true but it helped to sell Lux.
One of my favourites was the translucent Pears, one of the oldest on the market, that came with subtle aromas. But at the height of a Majorcan summer I preferred to shower with Wright’s Coal Tar soap which I found especially bracing. Wright’s was never on sale here so it was one of the many items visitors used to bring from England. I had a standing order for as many family size bars as they had space for.
Some years ago a couple of shops in the centre of Palma were selling delightful soaps made with an incredible range of fruits and vegetables. There was an exfoliate one encrusted with oatmeal flakes and it worked beautifully.
A tutti-frutti bar looked good enough to eat.These soaps came in huge slabs, were sold by weight and were quite expensive. A 130 grs wedge, a smallish piece, cost almost €5. With prices like that and bars of soap going out of fashion, it didn’t come as a surprise when both shops quickly closed down.
In the languages I have any contact with, the word soap comes directly or indirectly from the Latin ‘sapo’, giving us ‘jabón’ (Spanish), ‘savon’ (French) and ‘sapone’ (Italian). It’s ‘sebon’ in Welsh, ‘siopunn’ in Gaelic and ‘siabunn’ in Irish.
Apart from being a cleansing agent formed by reacting natural oils and fats with a strong alkali, soap has had other definitions. In the mid-19th century it meant flattery or to flatter. This led to certain nuances. One who curried favour and worked hard to impress his boss was simply called a soap.
From the mid 1800s to about 1910, a ‘soap crawler’ was a common term for a toady and ’soapy’ meant unctuous or ingratiating. On the other hand, ‘soft soap’ could be praise as well as flattery. In A Soldier’s Experience, published in 1885, Sgt T. Gowing wrote: “Camp before Sebastopol, 29 March, 1855. We all received great praise, or soft soap, from Lord Raglan.”
The term ‘bits of soap’ was late 19th century slang for girls collectively, but also referred to harlots or near harlots. In Australian slang of the 1920s, a soap was a simpleton or a dupe. The word later became ‘sap’.
In the Services, a ‘Joe Soap’ was an unintelligent and over-willing recruit who was taken advantage of, especially when unpopular chores were being allocated.
Lower deck Royal Navy sailors used to call bread and cheese ‘soap and flannel’ but for railwaymen a bread and cheese meal was ‘soap and towel’.
A slang word I haven’t heard for decades is ‘no soap’, an American term that means nothing doing. When Australians wanted to indicate they hadn’t the slightest idea about something, they said they didn’t know it ‘from a bar of soap’.
On cold winter nights in 19th century England, a ‘soap suds’ was a hot gin and water with lemon juice and a few lumps of sugar. On the stock exchange, shares in A&F Pears, of translucent glycerine soap fame, were known as ‘soaps’. Nowadays soaps are popular TV series such as Coronation Street and Eastenders.
The full name is ‘soap opera’, programmes that originated in the United States in the days before television when radio was the great means of instant communication.
Soap operas were daytime radio serials aimed at women. Then, as now, listeners identified with the characters and became involved in their lives. The first radio serials were sponsored by toilet soap makers, which led to the soap opera name.
American writer Frederic Wakeman wrote a memorable novel called The Hucksters (1946) that is set in New York and Hollywood and tells about an advertising agency with the account for the country’s top toilet soap maker.
Wakeman, who had worked as an advertising copywriter, dissects the business with a scalpel and we get to see the rampant skullduggery that permeated dealings at every level. Penguin published it and it’s highly recommended if you come across it.