Thursday, 10 April 2014

There is more to Victorian shaving than you might expect...

Most of the ongoing aim of the Victorian Shaving Soap Project is to look at the recipes and paraphernalia of  shaving, but it would be wrong to completely ignore the psychological aspects entirely. I've had the following blog post recommended to me and I must confess its a way of looking at shaving that I hadn't considered before.

In it, Justin Bengry explores the idea that advertising for shaving products increasingly make use of images and connotations of sexuality at a time when many men are starting to move away from the idea of beardedness as an expression of virility.  

Well worth a read, there are also a couple of very nice shaving soap adverts used to illustrate the post.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Incense & Peppermint, and soap shapes

I've been a bit quiet recently, the start of the main re-enactment season kept me busy with other projects for a while, but it didn't stop me plotting and planning the next stages of the Victorian Soap Project.

I spent a chunk of yesterday trying a recipe thats technically not Victorain at all, but I loved the idea of the scent combination. This one came from a soap formulary dated 1912 and is a shaving soap scented with peppermint and patchouli. Its an incredibly 'modern' smell, in a way, though I suppose to be utterly accurate it reminds me of classic 1960s hippy blends and had me humming offkey 'Iron Butterfly' songs whilst I was stirring the boiling soap. I hope it matures as nicely as it smells now, I'd love to add this one to the range. I've done it on the 'vegetarian' base that we developed in an earlier stage of the project.

I'm also dithering a bit and could do with some opinions.  Because of the hot-processed nature of these soaps, they don't take pouring into fancy moulds at all well, the soap comes out of the pan looking like molten sticky lava crossed with mashed potato, and sets with a certain amount of this rustic texture remaining in its appearance. Original Victorial soap factories made enormous batches so that the slices cut avoided this, and also pressed finished soaps in a mould to perfect the cake shapes. I'd dearly love to get hold of a working Victorian soap press to experiment with this side of the process (if anyone knows of one, please do let me know!)

The first installments of the Victorian Shaving Soaps were made as round 'hockey puck' shapes, with an option of a pair of small spherical soaps that fit well into the dents in traditional shaving bowls or can be used in a shaving mug. I made these by cutting slabs, then using what is essentially a biscuit cutter to slice out the discs, the 'scraps' got immediately moulded into the balls. All fine in itself, but its not all that efficient and they are a pain to pack attractively. I'm wondering about doing the range in the same plain, squarish rustic cut slabs that the rest of my soaps go out in, but I need to know what my potential customers think. I want the soaps to work well in use, but they also need to be tidy in storage and display when I take them to an event for sale.

Would you take a moment to record your preference in the poll to your right?

One final thought, a few of you haven't yet had your Crowdfunder soaps. I haven't deliberately forgotton anyone, but wanted to do a second batch of some of the soaps before I sent those out. If you know you responded to my email asking for your addresses and choice of fragrance but haven't had your soap, its in progress and should be going out in the next few weeks. If you aren't sure if you got back to me, please feel free to email and I'll check the records :)

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Moustache Wax Feedback

In my last post I was trying out a moustache wax recipe, and being a girl and therefore sadly lacking in the whiskers department, I sent some samples out to intrepid and luxuriantly bewhiskered friends to try out for me.

Here's the first feedback from the very versatile Sir James Pennyman who tweeted his progress for me and which I condense here with his permission:

First we have a before shot ("This is how perilously Paleolithic I looked before I applied the wondrous Hungarian Hussar Wax")
 Then after a short but suitable pause for shock, horror and general offers to take him off to a quiet corner for a makeover, we had this: ("This is how fierce-whiskered I looked with an application of Hungarian HussarWax")
I quizzed him about the texture, because to me, it did feel a little bit strange, and apparently although it is a bit like coarse hair mud, it applies really easily dry, holds very well and sets easily. It also survives tea!

Which when it comes down to it, is pretty much all that an be required in such a potion. I trust he will try its holding powers when exposed to brandy in due course.

Many thanks indeed for the feedback, and I love the before and after pictures!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Moustache Wax!

Today I am trying out a recipe for moustache wax from 1872. This one is quoted from
Encyclopedia of practical receipts and processes. by William Dick (though I have also found essentially the same recipe in and 1867 text and it gets repeated right through into the 1920s with minor variations)
1287. Hungarian Pomade for the
Moustache. Melt by a gentle heat 1/2 pound
gum-arabic, and 1/2 pound of oil soap, in 1 pint
rose water, then add 1 pound white wax, con-
stantly stirring; when of a uniform consist-
ency, add 1 ounce attar of bergamot, and 1
drachm attar of thyme, for perfume. If re-
quired to be brown, color it with tube-burnt
umber ; or for black, use tube ivory-black.
Like most pastes and pomades, this one needs a lot of working in a mortar to get it smooth. Here it is at the gum arabic, rosewater and soap stage. I'm using some of my own olive oil soft soap for the soap phase:

 Next, I've added the molten beeswax:
It goes a bit lumpy and porridgy at this point, it needs a splash more rosewater and lots and lots and lots of elbowgrease to reduce it to a smooth paste. The bit in the tub below still has a little bit of granulation to it, next batch I need to work even more I think;

The idea of this type of mixture is that the wax has holding power, the gum arabic in water goes on 'wet' then dries to a brittle stiffness, and the soap means it all washes out at the end of the day. Sadly, I didn't have a friendly moustache to hand, so this awful pic is the end of my hair. Still, its certainly sticky when applied and dries off into what appears to be a good level of holding power.
 In fact, its so sticky I inadvertantly glued myself to the cat, reaching down to stroke him after doing the end of my hair! Next step is to send this off to some gallant volunteers who will give me their honest opinion on how useable this is on real moustaches.

Having also read the 1923 version of the recipe which uses powdered Castile soap and much less liquid and which is designed to make a solid stick pomade, I'll be trying that one in due course. There is no doubt this version works, but it has a slightly odd texture that I'm not sure I care for personally.

I've found a fair number of Victorian moustache wax recipes in my explorations, and I'll be trying out a few more over the next weeks. I'll report back if I find anything particularly exciting.

Update: We have some photo feedback from one of my intrepid testers!

Friday, 27 January 2012

Making Soap from Woodash Lye

The vast majority of soap recipes recorded during the Victorian period make use of commerically prepared lye sources, these had been available since the turn of the century (Leblanc made his discovery of making sodium carbonate from salt in 1791 and further innovation on the same theme was steady from that point onwards), with mined potash coming into use from about 1860 onwards, and most large soapworks took full advantage  of the latest technologial advancements.

Lye made from wood ashes would not therefore have been a regular part of the commercial repertoire, but it is known to still be a common method of producing soap in less urban areas, with examples from American homesteading families being fairly well documented right into living memory.

Although most of my experiments for this project will be using commercially prepared lye, its also good to remind myself just how much work does into making soap from scratch using woodashes as a lye source.
I spent part of this week turning a barrel of ashes into lye and the resulting lye into soft soap. I've written the process up as an article on Downsizer. Making Soap out of Woodash Lye

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Shaving Mugs and Bowls

Researching what goes into shaving soap is one thing, but it would be remiss of me not to also have at least a passing look at the containers used to hold soap whilst in use
Shaving bowls have a long history. Barbers bowls with a semicircular notch seem to have done double duty in earlier centuries as both bowls for shaving and for use during bloodletting. There is a nice ceramic example here at the Science Museum London dated 1700-1750

And another here, in pewter from the V&A museum dated1675-1700 complete with a little dent to hold a ball of soap. 

By the time we get to the Victorian period and the focus of this project, this style of bowl is becoming rather old fashioned and most men are using a shaving mug to hold their soap. These can take quite a wide variety of forms, from simple containers not dissimilar to the sort of mugs we use today for drinks, to elaborate multi compartmented ones designed to hold a whole or half cake of soap above a reservoir of hot water into which the brush could be dipped.

In barbers’ shops, the use of a communal shaving soap and mug or bowl was frowned on as it could lead to the spread of infections and ‘barbers itch’, so it was possible to have your own personal shaving mug stored at your local barber shop for your exclusive use. Personal shaving mugs, whether for use in the home or by your barber, are now widely collected and a quick look at any of the websites devoted to them will give a good insight into the huge variety of shape and ornamentation found throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

Occasionally patents were filed to suggest improvements in the design of shaving mugs. This one is an American patent from 1867 

US patent 66788 "Improvement in shaving-cups"

The mug below is a shaving mug we found walled up in a disused cupboard when we moved into our 1890s house, I’m not sure of its exact date, but shaving mugs like this go out of general fashion fairly early in the twentieth century. It has ‘A Present from Weston Super-Mere’ on it, and is otherwise a plain, functional, everyday mug. Gareth is currently using it to test some of the soaps I’m making as part of this project.

Although the fancy shaving mug styles are largely restricted to the nineteenth century, the somewhat simpler shape that resembles a modern coffee cup survives- Old Spice for example issued a long line of shaving mugs from 1938 into the 1990s.  

Other shaving soaps, particularly the softer cream soaps made using a combination of sodium and potassium lye, might be packaged in small lidded bowls, a style still to be found in use amongst high end shaving soap manufacturers.

Today, there are a number of excellent artisan potteries creating beautiful shaving mugs, bowls and dishes, some in traditional styles, others in more modern shapes. I must just make mention of Gwynneth Rixon, a ceramicist who will be working with me to develop some shaving mugs that will fit the eventual results of the Victorian Shaving Soap project, her work is wonderful and I am always happy to recommend it.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Victorian Shaving Soap Recipes

There is a huge variation in the methods of manufacture and preferred textures of shaving soaps during the Victorian Period.

Just for starters, have a look at these recipes:
The druggists hand-book of practical receipts of every-day use. By Thomas F. Branston, 1857 recommends an interesting shaving paste that uses eggs

or how about this one?
 The soap called for here is plain Castile, an all olive oil hard soap.

Or this set of recipes for shaving fluid in Cooley's cyclopaedia of practical receipts, by Arnold James Cooley 1864

These types of  formularies also talk about powdered soaps, and creamed soaps such as perle d’amande are also recommended as being popular. Soft soaps made with a potash lye get regular mentions, as in this example from  Acids, alkalies and salts: their manufacture and applications,by Thomas Richardson, 1863

‘The soap, which has become so thick it can hardly be stirred, is run off into frames and cooled. These soaps are generally perfumed but not coloured.’

Although it is made with a potash lye its unlikely to be a jelly like soap, traces of salts in lye sources not as pure as modern commercially prepared KOH will help harden the soap even in small quantities. Many other shaving soap recipes of the period call for a mix of lye sources to get the preferred texture.

A general treatise on the manufacture of soap, theoretical and practical by Hippolyte Dussauce (marvellous name that don’t you think?) writing in 1869 recommends for hard shaving soaps made by the cold process either 2:1 tallow to coconut oil, or about 1:1 in other formulations.

Cold process soap making is incidentally a method regarded by many soapmakers with some suspicion during the Victorian period due to the difficulty in exactly calculating lye to fat ratios in any given batch and the need to start with concentrated lye- it is interesting that it is today the preferred method for artisan soap makers and that we can very easily calculate the exact saponification values of fats to result in a mild soap. 

To our Victorian predecessors, it was usually much better to make a boiled soap starting with a weak lye and adding successively stronger batches then salting out the soap leaving the excess lye and the glycerine behind in the spent lyes underneath. At this point the glycerine was seen largely as a waste product, it is not until the turn of the century that its value in explosives is fully exploited and glycerine becomes often more valuable than the soap itself in commercial soapworks.
His recipe for Windsor Soap for Shaving is a good example of the use of both soda and potash lyes (NaOH and KOH to modern soap makers)

Scented with caraway, bergamot, petigrain, cloves lavender and thyme, the soap was sold in cakes of 2-4oz.

Just like today, tastes varied and the Victorian gentleman could choose from a fairly dazzing array of shaving preparations, from hard bar soaps, through cream pastes, powdered soaps, liquids and more exotic emulsions. 

I have barely even started on listing all the scents that were popular, let alone the packaging associated with shaving soaps. Those will have to wait for a separate post all of their own. In the meantime, I have recipes to try out!