by Lady Elska á Fjárfelli
Using bar soap to make something else is a time-honored tradition. In the 16th century in Tudor times, grated soap could be bought from an apothecary as an ingredient for scented soap balls (and rather strange medicines). Intriguing recipes of that time exist with quite curious ingredients, such as oil of spike (a type of lavender) and civet (an excretion of the civet cat, used in perfumery). If it smelled nice, or otherwise helped a woman’s self-image by bleaching (white hands), scrubbing (calluses), coloring (rosy cheeks) or smoothing (wrinkles), pretty much anything went.
White soap was known for many centuries but it was not until the Middle Ages that it came into widespread use. White soap had two distinct advantages over soft soap, or black soap. Its basic ingredient, olive oil, was easy and pleasant to work with compared to animal fat of questionable age and hygiene. It also sets into solid bars and therefore can be shredded, which makes it possible for a customer to mold and scent soaps to the customers’ personal taste.
Despite the general modern belief that people back then did not bathe much at all, people of the Tudor age did keep themselves clean … by continuously changing and laundering their underclothes and by sponge bathing. Henry VIII and other royals had permanent plumbed-in bathrooms, like those built at Hampton Court and Whitehall. Of course, these magnificent bathrooms were great luxuries.
Bathing for the average person meant having to fill a wooden tub with water, which was time consuming without indoor plumbing or gas ranges and was not something they would bother to do regularly. An interest in personal cleanliness did develop around that time as Tudor-style clothes were tight fitting and often of not-easy-to-clean fabrics, as shown by various toiletry soaps and stain removal recipes that began to show up in various household instruction manuals of that time.
Sir Hugh Plat, in his Delightes for Ladies to adorne their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes & Water (1609), shares a great recipe for “a delicate washing bal”:
Take three ounces of Orace, half an ounce of Cypres, two ounces of Calamus Aromaticus, one ounce of Rose leaves, two ounces of Lavender flowres: beat all these together in a mortar, searching them thorow a fine Searce, then scrape some castill sope, and dissolve it with some Rose-water, then incorporate all your powders therewith, by labouring of them well in a mortar.
Another nice recipe comes from The secretes of the reuerende Maister Alexis of Piemount (1558) by Girolamo Ruscelli, on how to make “Vvhite musked Sope”:
Take Sope scraped or grated, as much as you will the whiche (when ye haue well stieped and tempered in rose water) leaue it eight dais in the sunne: Than you shall adde to it an vnce of the water or milk of Macaleb, twlue graines of Muske, and sixe graines of Ciuet, and reducinge all the whole into the fourme and maner of harde past, you shall make therof very excellent balles.
Making your own soap balls is easy, since all one needs to do is grate soap into slivers (by hand or with a kitchen machine), add a tiny bit of water or milk to make the slivers sticky, knead a bit by hand and then roll the sticky mass into a ball. Dry for a few days and the soap is ready to be used. Plain olive oil-based soap like Castile soap would be close to period.
This project also makes for quite a fun kid’s activity, especially when they get to hand-grind smelly botanicals to add to their own kid-sized shaped balls of soap. Check out your local Asian store for a coarse stone mortar and pestle, pick up some herbs and spices like cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, lily flowers, or rose buds, and with the help of your energetic kids grind up a pinch of this and that, then knead into your sticky mass before shaping. The bits and pieces will also add scrubbing ability to your soap, along with an amazing handmade scent. Your kids might actually be inspired to wash their hands before dinner now they’ve made their own soap… a win-win situation if you ask me!
What are plausible ingredients for period washing balls?
You can try dried moss for a scrubbing soap; cedarwood, sandalwood, musk, and civet essential oils for a spicy woodsy scent; (distilled) rosewater, ground rose petals or buds, ground lavender buds, or lily flowers for a nice floral scent; dried herbs like mint, lemon balm, rosemary, or sage for that clean herbal scent. There are also some less usual but very period ingredients: Orace (orris, or Iris rhizome), Cypres (not cypress, but Aram or jack in the pulpit), Calamus Aromaticus (sweet sedge), amber grease (ambergris), Benjamin (benzoin), Macaleb (Prumus maheleb), Sandali citrini (yellow saunders wood), gum Oldanum (frankincense), Storax, and my personal favorite; oil of Spike (Lavendula spica essential oil).
So, the next time you are shopping online for kitchen spices or visiting an international market, check out the botanicals to see what unusual scrubs and scents they might have… and make yourself a set of scented balls the Tudor way!
Ashenburg K (2007) The Dirt on Clean, an unsanitized history, North Point Press, NY
Plat, Sir Hugh (1609) Delightes for Ladies to adorne their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes & Water EEBO
Ruscelli, Girolamo (1558) The secretes of the reuerende Maister Alexis of Piemount EEBO
My personal database of soap-related Materia Medica.