Dear Sybil, Now that Summer is coming, I plan on doing a lot of traveling, mostly to the Catskills and Adirondacks and on up into New England to the great old hotels and resorts that my grandparents and their parents went to. One thing I remember from them is the wonderful old miniature bars of soap they had in the bathrooms that had names different from the usual Ivory or Camay that we used at home. I would always take the bars home and keep the labels with the names of the hotels and resorts on them to remind me of our trips. They always seemed to be more luxurious than our soaps, and they lasted longer even though they were smaller bars…Is it wrong to steal them? Sincerely yours, Feeling Guilty.
Dear Feeling Guilty, DON’T! Those soaps are actually wonderful in a number of different ways. ….even ecologically! First of all, the companies that made them intend them to be promotional! A hundred years ago, the higher-end soap makers hoped to lure new customers into buying their brands back home by placing miniature versions of their product in vacationers’ rooms who would do just what you did as a youngster; link the look, the feel, and the smell of a soap with a glorious vacation in an exotic place. For middleclass Americans who were becoming affluent enough to “take to the open road” and stay at the so-called Grand Hotels that were previously restricted to the super-rich of the 19th century, every nuance of their stay was memorable, even the grand bathrooms with their giant fluffy and monogrammed towels and their beautiful incised bars of soap. The marketing ploy was so successful that the more common soaps (Ivory, Dove, Camay, Woodbury, etc.) responded by trying to flood the hotel industry with their own brands, but of course, there was nothing particularly “special” about sensible old Ivory. You could find it in every gas station washroom and backroad motel off the highways. Ivory may have been "99 44⁄100% Pure" and even floated!..... but that certainly didn’t mean much to Marion Crane at the Bates Motel.
Another thing about the higher-end soaps that you noticed too, F.G., was the fact that they seemed to “last longer”! They did, and here’s why; better soaps are “hard-milled” or “French-milled”; terms which mean that they go through added steps which cause them to be harder, glossier, less full of emulsified air, and longer lasting. A bar of Crabtree & Evelyn, Caswell Massey, or any of the other classic luxury soaps may cost more per bar than the standards, but watch how much longer they stay because of that compulsive perfectionism that the French put into everything they design.... Hey, and do yourself a favor! Get an old-fashioned flower-frog from Grandma’s pantry or the local flea market (the metal criss-cross flower-holder that folks put in the bottom of a vase! No, not the deadly one with the 200 needles sticking up!) and use it as your shabby-chic soap dish. It’ll keep your fine soap up in the air between bath times and completely dry it out. Nothing turns soap “soupy” faster that letting it sit in one of those forlorn built-into-the-wall soap dishes that come with every high-rise apartment. And to make them last even longer, always unwrap soaps as soon as you bring them home, and store them either in your chest of drawers or on closets shelves. Not only do soaps get even harder when they’re allowed to “dry” out for a couple of weeks before use, but they also make a wonderful sachet for your clothes and linens, and they chase away moths and mildew too…..a triple bonus, n’est-ce pas? (That flower-frog soap dish and the sachet trick work equally well on the cheaper brands of soap too! Your bar of Ivory will last twice as long, trust me!) And remember that I mentioned that bars of good soap have an ecological benefit too? Well, the processes and packaging for hard milled soaps are much less stressful on the environment. The craze for bath gels and foams that started in the 1980s spiked the use of petroleum and other chemicals not only to make the products themselves but also the millions of bottles that remain completely unrecycled to this day. The packaging for a three bar box of Caswell-Massey “Number Six” (George Washington’s favorite, by the way….and mine too!) is basically some paper and cardboard….not your high-falootin’ spray-labeled faux-plexi-glass aero-dynamically designed squirt bottle for Aveeno that’ll be completely intact in a museum in 2000 years. Treat yourself to the luxury of great bathtimes with a luxury that turns out to be both economically smart and ecologically responsible too…. Now you can settle back into that hot tub and feel really relaxed. You’re a good person!….. even if you DID steal that bar of hotel soap!! Xoxoxox! Sybil.
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