I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly certain that in their younger days my two grandmothers, both of whom were born late in the 1800s, made the soap they used in bathing (even though commercially produced soap became available in the U.S. earlier in that century). Both led self-sufficient family lives, more out of necessity than as a value choice. They probably made lye soap.
By the time I knew my paternal grandmother, in the 1960s and 1970s, her soap of choice was Dove. She lived in a small four-room house, and the minute you walked in her front door, the distinctive scent of Dove caught your nostrils. My mother had her soap of choice, too: Camay. That scent, too, caught your attention, at least in the bathroom. Mom used Camay as long as I knew her, and so it was fairly predictable that I would start my soap-buying life as an adult with Camay. But I’ve strayed over the years. Oh, I’ve strayed.
From time to time, I’ll buy a fabulous bar of soap, the kind of bar that might cost $8 or $10. (Believe me, I think of my grandmothers every time I buy such a bar of soap. What would they think about my spending so much money on a single bar of soap?) These soaps are gently scented and often flecked with herbs or flower petals, often wrapped in beautiful fabric or paper, sometimes adorned with beads. I see these bars of soap as an affordable luxury, a treat. (Understand, I still buy a big box of Kirkland bath soap at Costco as the norm.)
I realize, nonetheless, how privileged I am to be able to purchase soap at all, let alone luxurious soap. After the long civil war in Liberia, for example, little soap was to be had anywhere. Through a grant from Women of the ELCA, a group of women was trained to make and market soap. I happened to visit the women near the end of their training program and was honored to be the first to purchase soap from them. In 2008 in Liberia, for as little as $100 U.S., two women could form a cooperative soap making business and be on the road to self-sufficiency for their family.
Fairly traded and organic soaps are available from groups like SERRV and 10,000 Villages, among others. Some of these soaps are made following traditions that are centuries old. As our Lutheran World Relief partners remind us, when we buy fairly traded products, more of the money you spend reaches the hands of the farmers and families who grew or produced them.
A bar of soap: it’s such a simple item that we use every day. Do you give it much thought?
Linda Post Bushkofsky is executive director.
Photo by Elizabeth McBride.