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The Flat Cap on ... Soap

Today The Flat Cap got out of the shower struggling to find a towel because sadly he had soap in his eyes. This prompted him to find out more about the origins of soap and how long it’s been around for.

According to legend (and Wikipedia) the earliest recorded recipe for soap comes from ancient Babylonia and dates back to around 2,800BC. Almost five thousand years ago soap was used for washing wool and cleaning pots and pans rather than bathing and personal hygiene. This meant that Babylonian children always had clean school pullovers. The down side of this was that the children themselves smelled a fair bit. Luckily for the pupils so did their teachers who, whilst smartly attired in their freshly washed designer cardigans, jumpers, socks and scarves, still had no idea that soap could be used to make them more fragrant. Early soap was made from animal fats and wood ash. Those people who experimented by washing with the stuff were left stained by the grey ash and ridiculed in the media, pretty much in the same way that Goths get a bad press today.

One of the earliest types of soap originated in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Visitors to the city quickly realized the local soap was a perfect natural moisturizer and humectant. Without any preservatives, chemical additives or fragrances it was widely advertised by environmentalists, pop stars and celebrities. By the time of the crusades it had become one of the most hotly traded commodities of the Syrian territories. No self respecting crusader could return home to his wife or girlfriend without a box of Aleppo soap and souvenir shops did a roaring trade. Famous female crusader Eleanor of Aquitaine couldn’t get enough of the stuff. History records one of the reasons she was so popular with men was because of her good complexion and soft skin. Her regular washing with Aleppo soap was also cited as the reason she lived until the ripe old age of 82. Eleanor appeared in women’s magazines and on billboards throughout France well into her seventies.

The problem for many lower ranking crusaders was the strict baggage allowances on the ships transporting them to and from the Middle East. After they had packed their armour and a change of clothes they were invariably left with only a couple of kilogrammes for other goods, including gifts. Dissatisfaction with the system led a few to quit military life and set up their own soap works in Europe. Initially these soap manufacturers were confined to the Mediterranean countries of Italy and Spain. The best of these was in Castile, Spain where access to an abundant supply of olive oil set it apart from its competitors. Early Spanish soap pioneer José del Jabón quickly realised that he needed royal patronage if he was to become a multi millionaire so he signed up Queen Isabella l and subsequently her daughter Queen Joanna to promote his products. They were paid handsomely and would tour around the country in a luxury coach whilst José trailed behind in a wooden wagon laden with bars of soap that he sold at country fairs and village fetes. By the time he was thirty José had a chain of shops across Spain and was affectionately known as ‘The cleanest man in Christendom’ for his services to personal hygiene. He was also loved by Europe’s green lobby as the soap was bio-degradable and safe for use on children. José exploited his fame and fortune by holding wild sherry binges and bacchanalian orgies at his mansion. Anecdotal evidence from parish records confirms that neither the soap, nor its proprietor lost their potency over time. After a life of excess José eventually died ‘on the job’, aged just 42.

As Castile is rather a long way away The Flat Cap decided to continue his soap research with a visit to Port Sunlight on the Wirral. Built from 1888 onwards the model village was constructed to house workers in the nearby soap works. Eschewing the perils of strong drink and other baser pursuits its founder William Lever sought, “to socialise and Christianise business relations and get back to that close family brotherhood that existed in the good old days of hand labour.” He also managed the profits from his business preferring not to trust the oiks in the soap works and told them, “it would not do you much good if you send it down your throats in the form of bottles of whisky, bags of sweets, or fat geese at Christmas.” The Flat Cap thinks Lever would have struggled with the concept of bankers’ bonuses, and the wine bars they frequent.

Whilst admiring the listed buildings in Port Sunlight The Flat Cap spoke to a local newsagent called Rita, and she was able to provide some interesting soap related facts:

• Famous journalist and television presenter Fiona Bruce used to live in Port Sunlight. As a child, in the run up to Bonfire Night, Fiona would ask strangers for a penny for the guy and then spend all her money on comics and sweets • The Latin word for soap is “sapo” but the letters sort of got jumbled up when it came into the English language • Extras working in soap operas get paid a flat daily rate but there are add-ons if they have to work with an animal, or do something physical like swimming or speaking in a loud voice • If you google the word “Trumpers” it brings up a website selling shaving soaps • Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr (not his real name) debuted for the group at a venue in Port Sunlight • You are only ever eleven metres away from the nearest bar of soap • Shower gel (a form of liquid soap) is the best cheap present to get your partner because you can also use it to shampoo your hair • Despite its name coal tar soap is orange not black • Thousands of marathon runners in China needed medical treatment after they mistook bars of grape-scented soap for much-needed energy bars and greedily scoffed the lot • “Eastenders” was voted the best British television soap in 2015. The Flat Cap tried watching an episode but lost the will to live after only ten minutes viewing

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