Lathering Up For Floating Soap Sales

My mother, who ruled her roost as sagaciously, sedately, and as graciously as ever did Wife-Queen Juno, still made her own soap. True, the age of excoriating soft soap was before my mother's time, but we still had retired leaching boards in the barn, and she knew what they were for, if her children didn't.

But Mother was Bobbie Burns-oriented and never threw anything useful away, and kitchen drippings of fat were for making soap. The Soap Trust had made its start, and she did buy scented cakes for closer family ablutions, and certainly for the spare chamber's occasional guests. But a couple or three times a year the household squared away and we had soap days.

Hers was a heavy utility soap cooled in big pans lined with brown paper and cut into cakes. No lilac and lavender, and never meant for delicate hands, it lathered with a reluctance otherwise found in clay bricks. It was, all the same, powerfully effective. And for hands that grubbed the earth, we used a cake of it on the outdoor washstand, where it would bring grimy fingernails from darkness to light if you kept at it and used a stiff brush.

It was helpful, if you meant to clean up at that washstand, to bring a pan of warm water from the house to start the soap first. I'm positive this maneuver has disappeared from the art of cleanliness. Finding your indispensable jackknife in your hip pocket, you carefully scrape or cut thin bits of soap from the weathered cake, work them for a moment with the dirty fingers, and then put them in the face-pan to be covered with some warm water. Now you slosh things around so the smidgens of soap will dissolve, and if they do, you add more water and commence to lave.

And notice when you are through, and feel that you will be presentable for the farm luncheon of biscuits and with-its, that the finest lapis lazuli plumbing and the richest accouterments high-living can supply will never make you so utterly clean as you are now. You don't smell like a bower of tropical blooms, but you will get, as you seat yourself at table, that nod of approval that my mother gave her brood when she saw the beaming suppertime faces her soap had wrought.

In woodworking, soap is helpful with certain things, such as lubricating a wood screw when first inserted. We had a cup that lost its handle with a cube of Mother's cast-iron soap therein, and when a wood screw was being used it would first get rubbed across the soap. The soap first needed a little water to soften it, and at least two hours to have effect.

I'm not sure if my brothers and sister, all younger, remember our first meeting with soap that floats. Sunny Monday and Fels Naptha assisted the scrub board with the weekly laundry, and then came set tubs and other strokes of genius, and the washing machine brought on powdered detergents. The world was turning. There appeared a toilet soap advertised with, ''It Floats!'' Verily, a miracle! The people divided into two strict orders of Big and Little Endians: You were a stick-in-the-mud old conservative and still used submarine soaps, or you were wealthy and stylish and had soap that floats. There was a joke about the millionaire in Brooklyn who had money and class enough to use a superior soap that floated in his shower.

By that time, store-bought soap was doing the skin work at our house, but my mother still kept her drippings for soap days and she had not embraced the floating hand soaps. We still had a ''soap shaker'' by the kitchen sink for lathering the dishpan, and there was still a square of Bobbie Burns by the woodshed washstand.

To keep things in context, it was about the time they improved the tube, and toothpaste ''came out like a ribbon to lie flat on the brush.'' We were using the new tube, but we still stumbled over the pails of soap fat by the back door. As things had their way, there was table, and other, conversation about floating soap, and what wonderful things were going on in this world, and whatever would they think of next?

And to this, not at all astonished by progress, my mother chanced to say, ''I can make my soap float.''

We children, well aware of our mother's infinite possibilities, were properly undecided. First, if Mother said so, she could. Still, there was Mother's Bessemer-steel laundry soap clinging as if magnetized to the cast-iron sink, as devoid of flotation as a paving stone in a pail of milk.

Procter & Gamble could make soap float, but our mother was not P&G, and her soap was not their soap. Mother sat looking at us with the very smile she taught Mona Lisa, and she dared us to take exception as her fork held her bit of blueberry pie midway to destiny. Silence prevailed while we all finished our pie.

A couple of months after the blueberries were done we came to the next soap day, and with a tune about the Bonnie Banks o' Doon our mother brought in the fat pails and big pans, and things were under way. When it was all over we had a batch of leaden soap that floated as pretty as you please, like a yellow leaf in autumn.

Mother said, ''I just put a spoonful of sugar in it; I don't know who told Mr. Procter and Mr. Gamble.''

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