Soap of the Earth – Star Anise

“Enticing”

I bought this soap at an outdoor market last year, can't remember where, didn't use it for awhile because it's not in any packaging and I just liked smelling it. Then I used it, for baths, and it was my favorite for awhile because I love star anise so much. It was not afraid to really smell like star anise, either, and I thought it might get a little overwhelming, a little over-bearing, but it never did. You can look up their website and mail order soap and other products. I don't know offhand where they are sold otherwise, but if I see them at a farmers' market or outdoor festival this year I'll buy some more soap! This is truly handmade, small batch soap (I get that feeling, so I hope it's true), so it's not like they will always have every variety in stock, and maybe there will be some new, odd ones from time to time, who knows. I looked up their mailing address on a google map, and then the street view, and it was seriously out in the country, like a farm, and there was even a person (you know, with the face blurred) out getting the mail—which could be your fan mail! Why don't I do that? Send fan mail by mail anymore? Think how much that would mean to someone! Anyway, it's in (or outside of) Whitewater, Wisconsin—a town nearby me that I've never been to. I'd like to check out the town sometime. Is there whitewater there? I think there's a branch of the University of Wisconsin. Is there a little diner in town? Is there somewhere to buy this soap in town? Anyone want to go on a road trip?

The ingredients for this particular bar of soap are: “saponified olive, coconut and palm oils, star anise powder, & the pure essential oils of star anise, bay & lime.” The anise smell is unmistakable—they're not fucking around with that. The bar is rectangular, it looks like cut from a larger cake. The color is a light brown or beige, with maybe a greenish tint, with darker brown swirled in, not a uniform color at all—rough in shape and color, feeling very homemade. It was a lovely bar of soap. Gone now. The first and only star anise soap I've used. I used to make tea with star anise, and I put it in stuff I'm cooking, sometimes, like curry. I used to go to this Indian food cart in Portland, Oregon, run by this guy named Tony who cooked everything, and he used lots of star anise in the curry, so when you'd get down to the end you'd get pieces of it, softened, of course, but just emitting all that flavor. You could chew up a piece if you wanted to, it was almost like dessert, or a digestant. That this soap reminded me of that happy, heathy dining time, that's a good thing. I'd buy another bar of this, for sure, though next time I see their soap somewhere maybe I'll try a different variety.

Fax – pink, yellow, and green

“Office Soap”

I bought this Fax soap hoping to get “3-for-one”—that is, three mysterious, not-specified-on-the-packaging scents. There is no indication, neither from the packaging, nor from the smell, that there is any difference between the pink, yellow, and green soap, except for the color. The colors of pink, yellow, and green remind me of copy paper—those three, innocuous, boring colors that are the most common colors of paper in the common office, used most often as a divider between white pages—most often for clarity, not inspiration. I didn't expect much from this soap, seeing how inexpensive it was, but the name is funny, recalling the glory days of the office FAX machine. Also, being three of them, it reminded me of times when there are three flavors. Not Neapolitan, though, since the colors don't match. What I thought of was the three Christmas candles from childhood we would bring down from the attic each season, which had enchanting scents. They were candles poured into brandy snifters and then painted outside with rough, sparkling, colors to match the candle wax: there was green, red, and yellow—if I'm remembering correctly. The green was lime, and the yellow lemon. I can't remember what the red was, because I don't think strawberry, though maybe, because it wasn't cherry, I don't think. Perhaps some unspecified red, Christmas scent. Anyway, the soap bars all smell the same, and like soap, and so the association with these candles is immediately lost.

The bars of soap are small ovals with a few ridges, kind of rough and dusty, and it says “Evyap” on one side and “Fax” on the other. Evyap has a website, easily found, with text in English, and the first thing it says is: “As time flows by like a river, happy memories remain with EVYAP!” It appears to be a beauty care product company based in Turkey, started as a soap company in 1927 and now one of the 100 largest Turkish industrial corporations (with production facilities in Turkey, Malaysia, and Egypt), they make a full line of beauty products that includes Duru and Arko. The website says that Fax soap has been around for 37 years, in liquid and bar form, and it shows several flavors of bar soap including jasmine, chamomile, and strawberry. The soap I bought came in a plastic bag, five bars of different colors (pink, yellow, green) and at $2 for the bag is among the cheapest soap I've ever seen. The bag also says “Fresh” in larger letters, and “beauty soap with cream” in small letters. As far as I can tell, though, all three of the colors smell exactly the same, which is a kind of generic, slightly unpleasant soap smell. More than anything else it reminds me of a bar of soap that's sitting in a ceramic soap dish in the downstairs, half-bath of an elderly relative, that likely only ever gets used when guests are over and seems to have been sitting there for several decades.

 

Caswell-Massey – Jockey Club

“Uncle Don”

Another big, oval bar of soap, this one a pale green, and again the color “celadon” comes to mind. As soon as you unwrap it from its protective plastic cover it unleashes its scent on the room and dominates like a brash and very present houseguest. My first impression, the first words that come to mind are: 1950s, door-to-door salesman, vaguely inappropriate middle-aged bachelor next door neighbor, mysterious uncle, millionaire playboy, private men's club, rendezvous suite at the Taft Hotel, Mr. Gladstone. This is the soap that started me giving each variety a one, two, or three word “nickname”—for better or for worse. It occurred to me that this one might be something like: “Uncle Don”—everyone has an Uncle Don, or knows one, right? An older, kind of odd guy who seems to exist out of time. I had two Uncle Dons, as well as an older cousin, Don, who would also have been a classic Uncle Don. They may all have used this soap.

I just went in for another “first impression”—ideally trying to clear my mind of baggage and pretend I'm experiencing this for the first time. This time it brought me back to somewhere in childhood. It's possible my parents had this soap, or something similar, because I can't tell you what soap they did have when I was young—the only one that I actually remember, though, was Ivory. It's more likely that one of my relatives had a similar soap, and it could have well been either Uncle Don on my mom's side or Uncle Don on my dad's side.

I'm going to check the Caswell-Massey website and see how they describe it. They claim it's “rumored” to be a favorite of John F. Kennedy—so what does that mean? Nothing confirmed, I guess. His affair with Marilyn Monroe was also rumored—what was her favorite soap? Did she buy this soap for JFK, or did Jackie? The smell of this soap is so distinctive that it would become part of a person's appeal and your impression of them. The Caswell-Massey site calls it fresh and magnificent, and I have to agree—fresh, in spite of associating it with dead guys. They say it has “citrus top notes of grapefruit, lemon, and orange warmed with amber, musk, and patchouli”—meaning what? I'm not going to start using phrases like “top notes” here, or “finish”—just because that whole wine snobbery business puts me off my lunch. When I smell this soap, nothing citrusy comes to mind, though it might be there. It's not overly patchouli-y either, though some is likely—responsible for its appeal to me, as well as musk, which could add to that kind of leather-bound book study, manly English aristocratic vibe. It's funny, my word processing program wants to capitalize Musk, thinking I'm referring to “Elon Musk”—I wonder if he likes this soap, or what his favorite soap is? As far as amber goes, I always think of the hardened resin (like the amber stem of tobacco pipe) but upon looking it up, I guess some form of amber resin is used in perfume and scent-making, its quality being that of trees, woodsy, earthy—so I can see that with this soap. I learned something, which is always a plus, and the best thing about any soap is that it keeps revealing itself, keeps teaching you something.

Asantee – Tamarind & Turmeric Soap

“Thai For Last”

This is from A.S.P. Internation Herbal Soap Co. in Thailand and comes in an extremely elaborate cardboard box that is shaped like an oblong hexagon—so if you stood it on its end it would look like a lot of modern skyscrapers. This is a major soap box; it even has the Asantee logo printed in the inside. The box is glossy with elaborate pictures of what are presumably its ingredients: tamarind, turmeric, and also honey (there are bees and a honeycomb pictured). One side of the box has English print, and the other side is what I presume is Thai script. The photos are full colors, and the letters in red, yellow, and black—and there is also, oddly, kind of a holographic dot pattern overall that only shows up in certain kinds of light. I can't figure that one out.

It also says on the box: “Two colors scent” which refers to—I realized as soon as I opened it—the bar of soap is two-tone—half one color, half another, divided down the middle, lengthwise—one side more orange, and the other more light brown. Strange, huh? Presumably, one half tamarind and the other half turmeric. What I'm guessing, though, is the fragrance is uniform throughout and the two shades are just colors—which they pull off somehow. I don't know this for sure, though—maybe the two sides are different scents, as well. You can't really tell by smelling one side, and then the other. Now, the overall smell of this soap is kind of strange in itself—very hard to describe—and not entirely pleasant, to me. I've got some tamarind extract, and some powdered turmeric, which each have their distinctive smell—neither of which is all that pleasant, either, but the soap, to me, smells like neither of them, and more like just some kind of generic, industrial hand soap. I'm sorry, but I keep going back to it and not really liking it. It's funny—it's probably the most distinctive, nice looking soap I've yet purchased, but the smell, I can take it or leave it, but given a choice would leave it.

Chandrika

“Time Machine”

There are few pleasures in life more particular than opening a new box of Chandrika soap—it comes in a cardboard box and then is loosely wrapped in white, waxy paper—it's a flat sided oval, dark green, with the logo: “Chandrika” stamped in the soap, the “C” twice as big as the rest of the letters, which recalls the logo of Chowards Violet candies (intense, square, violet-flavored candy, often only available at filling stations—the name confusing, because the company is C. Howard, but the candy: Chowards). The first thing you notice, though, is the rough-hewn quality of the cake—it's got rough edges and imperfections, which makes it seem like it's either manufactured by machines from two-centuries previous, or actually by hand. (The box says: “Hand Made”—I'm inclined to believe it.)

This soap comes from India—and the ingredients list such things as: coconut, patchouli, lime peel, orange, sandalwood oils, wild ginger, and hydnocarpus oil—and is an Ayurvedic soap, which uses knowledge and practices from ancient Indian medicine. But in this case, this sum is much greater than any of the parts, because on the whole this soap evokes something very hard to describe. How does it make me feel? I'll try to describe it here! I keep going into my bathroom to smell this soap, and every time, without fail, it transports me somewhere—I don't know if I'm time traveling, or if it activates some part of my brain otherwise not activated; if it's about memory—it could be childhood, a relative, or a teacher, or maybe it's about the future, or sex, or some experience otherwise forgotten. Regardless, I can't seem to place it, or describe it; nor am I able to communicate how this smell makes me feel. This may be its power and allure, after all—maybe being just beyond my grasp is what makes it all the more powerful.

I try again, but I still can't nail it down. It occurs to me that it's easier to describe something that I don't like than something I love, especially if the thing that I love has a subtle appeal, which is often the best kind of appeal. The new shampoo I have (I won't name it) reminded me today of grade school lunch—I don't know why, and it's not exactly a pleasant memory, yet it is evocative, and in its own way, nostalgic. So that mindset permeated my latest attempt to describe Chandrika—and what came to mind was the Bookmobile—an old, mobile-home decked out as a mobile library that would park down at the end of the street periodically in the summer so kids could check out and return books and generally explore. There were metal steps going up to the door, and the interior was dark (at least in contrast to the hot summer day) and cool and mysterious. Why Chandrika made me think of this, I have no idea. Then it also brought recollection of riding bikes—past NASA, farmers' fields, and a dilapidated haunted house—out to this semi-rural, general store which contained several aisles of candy—much more candy variety than in stores today. No favorite that I recall—I wanted to sample it all—though the tiny, wax bottles with colored, sweet liquid inside kind of stand out in my memory. There must have been a definite smell in that place—the candy mixed with produce and fertilizer and old, wood floors—all as vivid, right now, as if I'm there—thanks to this Chandrika soap.

Addendum: I saw a box of Chandrika in a store but realized it was somewhat different than the one I had bought and reviewed, so I decided to try it. I didn't have any of the previous one left to compare the two, but I'm going by memory. It's pretty much similar art and logo, but not quite the same, and the bar of soap is square and not oval, but it's the same dark green color. I tried to read online if anyone discussed the differences between the two—and I came across all kinds of bizarre opinions, so I abandoned that investigation. As far as I can tell, from using it, it is the same Chandrika. I've been making it last for the past month, and every time I use it, it gives me the same evocative, nostalgic, magical feeling. Nothing has diminished. If I had to choose today—my favorite soap—it would be Chandrika.

Al-Jamal – Olive Oil Soap

“Infinite Impression”

This is a Palestinian Olive Oil soap, made in Nablus. It's a medium sized square, almost a cube, of fairly heavy, dense soap that's kind of pale yellow or beige, and is very irregular. There is a round indentation stamped on one side, but it's impossible to see what it says. The soap is very soft and lathery, and seems to be gentle, I guess what you'd expect from olive oil soap. It's also very dense and after some use hasn't diminished in size at all. There is no added scent, I don't think, but it does have its own particular smell—I'm presuming the smell of the olive oil and whatever ingredients are used, but no added fragrance. There are no ingredients on the packaging, at least not in English. It comes wrapped loosely in a waxy paper cover with a blue and orange design, with a drawing of a camel in the middle that looks like the Camel Cigarettes camel. The name Al-Jamal and description is in English, and an address and TelFax number, and the rest of the packaging is in, I presume, Arabic.

I bought this at the Holy Land Grocery & Bakery, in Milwaukee on S. 27th and Ramsey. It's a great store—I wish it was in my neighborhood. The Palestine Online Store sells this soap and has a nice description of how it's made—poured onto a floor and then cut into cubes, stamped, then stacked in towers, to dry. The only ingredients are olive oil, water, and a sodium compound. It's been made like that for centuries. “It is said” that Queen Elizabeth of England liked this soap, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Rolling Stones did, too, so I'll start that rumor right now. Thinking about the ingredients got me to thinking about where does olive oil come from? I guess from olives, which come from olive trees, and thinking about the parts of the world where there are olive trees makes me feel a little wistful. And all the trees that produce nuts and things like olives, from which we get oil—when it comes down to it, is there anything more interesting in the world than food based oil?

So... the smell of this soap—I'll try to describe it. Well, I can't describe it—there is no smell, really. But there is—and it evokes something, but I can't put my finger on it. Maybe it's just the smell of unscented soap—I'm sure that's something I've smelled before. Maybe that's what it's recalling. I'm wondering if my parents used some kind of cleaning soap when I was a kid, and that's what this is bringing back, now. I suppose that is the case, but there's no one to ask, so I've just got to dig deep into my memory. And I did... and that yielded nothing, not even demons. It's many months later as I still try to describe this soap. It's no smaller now than when I started it. Now it's years later, and it still has not been diminished. The soap has been passed down from my father, and his father before him. It's generations old soap. Still the same size. It's been passed down for epochs, and eons. Eons! Same size. It's probably clear, at this point, that I'm exaggerating.

Margo – Original Neem

"Green-Room"

Darker green than anything in nature (except for maybe nature Herself), the smallish cake has “Margo” indented, which will eventuality go away, but the memory lingers long after the name, or the soap itself, or the smell. Maybe it's the smell of a diplomat, or a race-car driver—but of decades past, while smoking in the green-room, or just prior to gentlemen starting their engines. Maybe it's the Uncle I never met because he pried the jewels out of the crown (though, there was no crown, just a Crown Victoria, and Crown Royal) or maybe it's the last stab at class for the guy who carries around an unopened Margo soap in his purple felt Seagram's Crown Royal bag with his burnt briar pipe and Dunhill Nightcap, and some mix and match pills, X-Acto knife, three smooth black rocks, and Social Security card.

Trader Joe's – Tea Tree Oil Pure Vegetable Soap

“No Baggage”

I've been fed a bill of goods about tea tree oil and its healing properties, and for all know, it's true; I certainly have believed it, want to believe it, and probably will continue to. I have some pure tea tree oil in a small bottle, and I've applied it to skin irritations and it seems to do something, though I'm not sure what. It sure smells like some kind of thing you wouldn't want anywhere near your body. Looking online: Dude, don't drink this stuff. Somewhere you'll hear someone calling it: “Nature's gift.” Which is silly—all of nature is a gift. The question here, though, is how much tea tree oil has to go into a tea tree oil product to be called a tea tree oil product? Maybe there is no rule about that at all, I don't know. In which case it's important to be able to trust your product's company. I like Trader Joe's—I go there mainly to buy nuts and huge cans of coffee beans. If I drank wine I'd probably go there much more frequently. Anyway, I trust them to make a soap that maybe has a little bit better ingredients than the major soap manufacturers.

This soap is very inexpensive, comes in a pure white bar, squared off with a beveled edge, and smells only slightly of tea tree oil. It was a pleasant soap to use—I liked it—and it caused me no irritation or revulsion—but it seemed to smell even less like anything as time went on. Ultimately, I'd say it was a decently priced, mild, dependable, clean soap—but just not very exciting at all.

Lifebuoy – Total

“Shore Leave”

This is a Lifebuoy made in India, with the familiar Lifebuoy logo and a picture of an Indian family on the package. The soap bar is a deep, unnatural pink with some indentations molded in the back for handling. When it's wet and a little used, there is a deep red band across the middle, like the top and bottom part of the soap bar were molded together. The smell is strong, intense, and initially repulsive to me. It makes me think of a used car salesman's cheap aftershave. But in some odd way it grew on me—I am surprised by that. Often things go the other way, toward increasing dislike. I can only think it must be the nostalgia factor at work, and some kind of old-fashioned scent—and it recalling some childhood memory of some relative, an old guy, like a great uncle twice removed who would always give you a nickel. Where this scent ever originated, I have no idea, but sailors—who needed something strong to hide the stench of their fungus ravaged bodies while on shore leave—wouldn't be a bad guess. There's a commercial where a woman and her kid are in a park, approached by a creepy doctor who uses what looks like an iPhone to show the woman a magnified portion of the kid's hand, crawling with germs. The woman looks terrified, and the doctor then suggests Lifebuoy Total.

Dr. Bronner's – All-One Hemp Peppermint Pure-Castile Bar Soap

“P. Peppermint”

For many years Dr. Bronner's liquid peppermint soap was in my home; I usually had some kind of bar soap as well, just for variety, but Dr. Bronner's is a great all-purpose soap. Lately, I've grown annoyed with liquid soap (just too many containers, I guess) and of course, I've been making an effort to try different soap, but it was nice to return to the bar version of the Dr. Bronner's, which just seems like the most healthy soap out there (based on ingredients, and attitude). You all know the Dr. Bronner's story; if not, you know how to use the internet, if you're interested. Peppermint feels kind of pedestrian, if not quite boring, but still, it's my favorite thing to put in the bath (besides myself) and has great benefits to my skin and my aches and pains. This is a pretty pepperminty soap—I feel like it's extreme enough to be satisfying. I'm sure there are more pepperminty soaps out there, just like there's always going to be a hotter hot sauce. Just like there's some sadistic food-guy out there who has made a hot sauce that will send you straight to the toilet, there's probably some insane hippie soap-maker who has made a peppermint soap that has to be handled with gloves (and there will always be some masochist to swear by it).

My only criticism of this soap is that it's a little bit “one-note”—and that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing—but it's definitely pretty much solid peppermint in the key of peppermint. If I had to describe this soap in one word, I guess it would have to be “peppermint.” It's more peppermint than even “All-One” or whatever Bronner's essence you might take from it. I'd like to try all their varieties eventually, though it's not the cheapest soap out there. If I had to pick one soap to use for the rest of my life, well, it wouldn't be this one, but you could do far worse. But what a sad thought. I'd rather dwell on the lovely qualities of peppermint. It's one of the better ice cream flavors, and candy flavors, and they say it goes well with bourbon. I wonder why there is no peppermint soda?—am I wrong?—what am I missing? Why isn't it a common last name? Or first name? It would be a name that works equally as well for any gender. I could even see changing my name to Peppermint, at least for awhile, if I was into changing my name, like Mr. Sean Combs. Maybe he is Peppermint, now, who can keep up? Sometimes I think it's not even him making up these new names—it's journalists—and he's savvy, why not just go with the free publicity? So here's a hot newsflash: Diddy has changed his name, once again, to: P. Peppermint.

Caswell-Massey – Almond Cold Cream

“Almond Egg”

My second Caswell-Massey soap to try was this “Almond Cold Cream” variety—which was favored by Dwight D. Eisenhower—frankly without much expectation. It's a big, rounded oval, white bar, and I expected blandness. What comes to mind when you think about Eisenhower? He was a two term president, between Truman and Kennedy, a bald Texan and five-star general, and I think, a generally well-liked president. This is how old I am: He was the president the first year of my life—a man born in the 19th Century (1890)! I have this funny recollection from almost 30 years ago about some guy calling me “Eisenhower”—I was at the beer store, and I was wearing these baggy, old, thrift-store pants, and this jock-guy looked at me and an expression of disgust came over his face, and he looked down at my pants and said, “Hey, Eisenhower,” then left quickly, before I could punch him, or ask him what in hell he was talking about. Why do I remember that? I suppose because of his aggression, though it wasn't unusual for jocks to pick on people who dressed at all oddly. But also, I could never figure out exactly the relationship between Eisenhower and my pants.

Anyway, back to the soap. What does “cold cream” mean to me? It makes me think of an old movie actress in her dressing room in front of the mirror, cold cream covering her face after a performance, to remove the pancake makeup and to restore her skin. So the use of cold cream seems like a very old-fashioned thing, and though it's still around today, have young people replaced it with a more modern treatment? I can't say for sure if this soap is less drying and more moisturizing than other soap, but maybe—for sure it's very soft and rich feeling.

Now, I had some trepidation about this almond scent; I've got a complicated relationship with almond. While it's my favorite nut, I've had bad experiences with the almond flavor. I once worked somewhere and had to use a commercial toilet cleaner that was “almond-scented” which was nauseating. At the same place, we were able to freely drink the fountain beverages, one of which was “Cherry Coke”—whose flavor, I realized, was exactly that of the toilet cleaner. It's interesting how cherry and almond are a very similar flavor and scent. What is repulsive, however, I think, is some low-quality, artificial almond scent—because it is not almond at all, but some reprehensible imposter, fooling many, but not me. (I feel much the same about cheap, imitation vanilla—I love real vanilla, but there is nothing on Earth worse than crappy, cheap, fake vanilla scent!) Anyway, to my surprise and delight, the almond scent in this soap turned out to be very pleasing, with a very natural, somewhat subtle yet present quality—really quite delicious. I didn't eat it, but I was tempted. Had my parents washed my mouth out with this one, I might have purposely gone on like Lenny Bruce. Anyway, this soap ended up being a pleasing love affair, the kind that starts slow and unexpectedly, lasts longer than you have any reason to expect—and ended when that last sliver slipped down the drain.

FairGlow – Fairness + Proteins

“Stepford Wives”

This is another inexpensive Indian soap that seems to be pretty high quality and, I think, marketed for women, though it's fairly innocuous and not particularly floral or per-fumy or what one might think of as feminine. There is a drawing of an Indian woman on the packaging, but if you'll notice, it's one identical woman standing right behind a woman, maybe looking over her shoulder?—both with the identical smile. Or maybe, perhaps odder, it's a two-headed woman—though I have no idea what that would signify. Maybe it's kind of a “Stepford Wives” thing, which is a bit disturbing. The package says: “Fairness + Proteins” and “India's No. 1 Fairness Soap”—which I was thinking had something to do with fairness, as in treating their soap-making employees fair—I was thinking about the the politics of the soap company, as in they don't test it on lepers or something, but now that I think of it, it probably has something to do with fair or light skin. Looking more closely, I notice, of the two women, the one in back has slightly darker skin, as if the lighter skinned one is emerging from the other one.

Anyway, the soap is a very white bar, pretty boring and normal really, except, if you want to think about it, the very extreme whiteness is kind of odd. If there is one adjective I could choose for this soap it would be “clean”—which is kind of silly, in that you might use that for any soap. But this soap is even cleaner than the rest, with no film, no aftertaste, no weirdness, no nostalgia, just pure, and white, and soapy. On the back it says, “Makes skin fairer from within”—which is really weird, now that I think about it, the idea that skin color is not surface but comes “from within”—like in a moral sense, as in “cleanliness is next to Godliness?” So maybe there is some weirdness with this soap, after all—it's getting more interesting to me, though disturbing. The package also says: “reduces the dark melanin”—which I guess is what determines skin color. So that's kind of disturbing. I look online, and I guess there is such a thing as “whitening soaps”—I had no idea—which are intended to lighten age spots, freckles, and sun damage, but also just make you overall lighter skinned. There is some warning about this, as I guess some of these treatments can contain harmful stuff like mercury, which leads me to read the ingredients (something I suppose I should always do). There are a bunch of chemicals, of course, I have no idea what they are, but also, interestingly, “Mushroom Extract”—haven't seen that before—so I'm choosing to focus on the possibility that it contains “shrooms” so as not to have to think about this whitening business.

Shikakai

“Pink”

This is, as far as I can tell, the least inspiring soap I've bought recently—at least based on its smell—I can't place it—it definitely has a smell, but it's just kind of a nondescript soap smell. I guess I'd describe it as a “soapy” smell—which, of course, means nothing. It comes in an oval bar, with beveled sharp edges, and the company name, which looks like “Godrej”—though it's hard to tell because it's cursive—imprinted in the soap (I think, it's washed away now...) It's a deep pink, almost rose color, not really very pleasing to me—not pink enough, not deep enough, not pale enough, to be pleasing. I can't get anything from the smell. The packaging is interesting, though: It boasts “AmlaPlus” conditioning, and says: “3 in 1”—referring to its three crucial ingredients (pictured as roots, plants, and berries, huddled together on the wrapper, along with a smooth-skinned woman)—Shikakai, a natural cleanser, Amla, which conditions your hair, and Bhringraj, which “nourishes your hair from the roots and promotes hair growth.” Maybe if I'd used this all along I wouldn't be bald, but I want more from life, as far as fragrance goes.

Addendum: A couple of attentive friends to the Instagram arm of these soap reviews made the point that this is actually bar shampoo, which, now that I think about it, is obvious; the three ingredients listed on back all refer to hair, and it mentions conditioning on front, and the the picture of the woman features her hair, cascading down from her head like black lava. I looked up a few Shikakai self-made YouTube videos (Danger Will Robinson: rabbit-hole!), and I have to admit, the world of hair-care is so vast that it's kind of dizzying to me. I personally spend almost no time thinking about hair products (that aren't wigs). This also brings up the question of the purpose of various soap; some is more for hand washing, some for body washing in the bath, and some is shampoo, and some primarily for face washing. I use them all for everything, if I feel like it, but I want to be aware of the differences. This also brings up the question of: am I focusing more on fragrance here than the soap's performance? Probably I am. I'm not really giving a fair assessment of the moisturizing or cleansing qualities as much as the sensuous (primarily smell and memory, but also feel and appearance) qualities. These reviews are admittedly extremely subjective, and probably are weighted in this order: smell (memory and nostalgia), intrigue (where does it come from, what's it about), sensation (what does it look like and how does it feel), function (what is it supposed to do and how does it do it). As always, we appreciate any comments and opinions and feedback; see contact page for email addresses.

Caswell-Massey – Number Six

“Leather-Bound Study”

Caswell-Massey is a soap and fragrance company founded in Newport, Rhode Island in 1752. They make these big, classic oval bars of soap that are expensive but last a long time and have a lot of personality, including the “Presidential Collection,” (which I purchased)—three soaps being famous for preference by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Washington (that would be George—Founding Father and first President of the USA?) From their New York stores they purportedly sold their products to the Astors and the Vanderbilts, Edgar Allan Poe, George Gershwin, Judy Garland, Cole Porter, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Onassis, and the Rolling Stones. That's quite a guest list.

Also, and possibly most significantly, I'm speculating that “Number 6” (Patrick McGoohan) in The Prisoner was named after this soap. When I first smelled it, it gave me a weird, nostalgic feeling; some relative from my distant past no doubt had this in their house, but no way to remember now. The soap is brown, and a big egg shape; it's very masculine but also a bit dandyish. You think of a room, a study, with leather-bound books, a decanter of whisky, and someone smoking a pipe. The Caswell-Massey website tells us its recipe includes: citrus, bergamot, orange blossoms, rosemary, narcissus; but don't expect it to smell like a bed of flowers, an orange grove, or a cup of Earl Grey tea (though you may very well think of tea-time). They also mention “27 additional aromatics” (secret?) and herein I believe is where this elusive, evocative scent lies. Since they aren't giving it up, I'm going to use my olfactory powers and make a wild guess: clary sage, sassafras, hyssop, ylang-ylang, cassia, grains of selim, barberry, angelica, holy basil, sweet cicely, epazote, elderflower, olida, njangsa, akudjara (akudjara—no?), mountain horopito, lemon verbena, jiaogulan, galingale, kaffir lime, jimbu, quassia, tsuga, ravensara, tannis root (tannis anyone?), fingerroot, and grains of paradise. Am I right?

It was a portentous day when I first brought the ostrich-egg of Caswell-Massey Number Six into my house, during a torrential downpour and a horrendous political season, and I couldn't help but think of witches burning in New England, Portuguese whaling ships, and the Newport Folk Festival—Pete Seeger trying to chain-saw the power cable as Bob Dylan and his electric band torched the future—which is all myth, of course, as is the one about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree in order to fashion himself some wooden teeth, and most likely the one about this being his favorite soap. But hell, the soap has been around since 1780—so just imagine, over the years, all who did use it—and smelled like this—it kind of gives me the willies, actually, to think about it. If I take a big inhalation of the fragrance, my mind if filled with images: gay sailors On the Town, sweat puddling in the wooden pew of an un-air-conditioned church, the last long day of summer, a mysterious linen-clad visitor, the sunbaked backseat of a 1959 Ford, ill-timed success, unexpected sex, and the frustration of it all.

Irish Spring – Moisture Blast

“Too Deodorants”

I must have used Irish Spring soap at some point as a kid, but I always had the impression that it was going to make you smell like a car salesman, just due to the advertising campaign, which was pretty effective, I guess, if it's still working on my brain now. Maybe it was the part where a kind of intimidating, country-ish, Irish woman says, “Strong enough for a man, but I like it too.” And there was always this image of a guy cutting off a slice of the soap, like he's slicing off a piece of the world's rarest fruit for you to sample. And everyone in the commercials are either wearing what look like the coarsest, heaviest sweaters known to man, or else naked, taking showers outdoors.

Anyway, this particular Irish Spring—“Moisture Blast” (with HydroBeads)—maybe my expectations were too high, but if it did anything less than take my head off it was going feel wimpy. Now, full disclosure—this variety apparently has a moisturizer built in—so maybe that additional ingredient cut down on the manly scent a bit. But I bought the “Moisture Blast” in a moment of weakness, appreciating as I did that those two words should NEVER find themselves working together. Anyway, all in all, the soap was pleasant enough, with a fairly mild car salesman cologne scent, but I guess a little disappointing, because that scent wasn't strong or specific enough to transport me to the 1970s, held captive by drunken, door to door, Bible selling pirates.

Pacha – Patchouli Mint

“Illusion of Collapse”

This is a thin bar of Patchouli Mint soap, which I guess is a sample size, but it's been pretty long-lasting, so it endured much longer than an inexpensive drugstore bar. It's from the Pacha Soap company which is in Hastings, Nebraska, so I'll have to look that up. The patchouli and the mint fragrance are both very subtle and pleasing, though for me, somewhat too subtle. I know that for a lot of people, patchouli evokes masses of unwashed, long-haired young people listening to very long, directionless songs while getting sunburned, but I think that's unfair. I'm not sure exactly when or how this happened, but I've become quite fond of patchouli, and I imagine it difficult to ever have a negative feeling about it no matter how strong, though I suppose we all have our limits. Anyway, this soap has a nice lather, a pleasant smell, is clean and wholesome feeling, doesn't give me a headache or make me break out.

An interesting thing about the architecture of this bar: it's very thin and contains small fragments of what I am led to believe are mint leaves (though it could be patchouli leaves, I suppose—where does patchouli come from? Something else to research). The bar resembles a broken piece of slab, as if to expose the interior of the soap—so what it looks like is an external structure with more of a concentration of the leaves inside—so that while I was using it, I kept expecting it to just kind of collapse in a cascade of pure leaves. But this never happened—so what it seems like, then, was an illusion, with a concentration of the leaf particles on the broken end in order to seem like it was a “filling.” Odd choice, in a way, but I understand it, in that it felt dynamic and changing, even if it wasn't really.

The Pacha Soap Company has a very good website you can check out and they seem to be young people deeply involved with environmental and global issues, activism, and giving back (they give away a bar of soap for every one sold), and of course making soap by hand. They have some really interesting varieties, too, very into experimenting, so I'll be buying more. I'm kind of fascinated with places like Hastings, Nebraska, too—like why is it there? It's about the size of my home town, and apparently increasing in population—there are some schools there, I guess, and it's most famous for being where Kool-Aid was invented. If you, for some reason, wanted to be in the exact center of the USA, this would be the place, though it's also a place one might describe as “the middle of nowhere.” It's not even on the river, and it's not on the Interstate. It is, however, an Amtrak stop, which is why I remember the name. It's also on US Route 6, a national highway that I'm kind of obsessed with (having lived on it in three different cities, and... just check it out sometime). It's a longterm idea for a project, I have, to explore the length of Rt. 6, and write about it. If I ever do, maybe I'll spend some time in Hastings, and I'll be sure to visit the Pacha Soap Company.

Dove – White

"Computer Mouse"

Dove is probably one of the most ubiquitous soaps in the USA, for some reason—I guess you have to ask yourself if you think it's because it's popular, and if so, why—is it because it's the cheapest, the boring-est, or the best, or does availability have some play in that, as in, it's in every store out there, and a lot of soap can't get in the store, and why? So What I'm talking about is, essentially organized crime. That is, what can get in what store and why? Is it based on corporate big money influence? I don't even have to answer that. Anyway, Dove has been around since the Fifties, so it's been soap I've known about my whole life. I have no memory whatsoever of what kind of soap my parents bought regularly, when I was a kid. But I wouldn't be surprised if they tried a lot of different ones over the years, not unlike what I'm doing now.

So even though this stuff is as common as dirt, I want to examine some of the really ordinary soaps as well as the more obscure ones. The shape of the Dove bar is like an odd, sculptured oval—the best way to describe it is to say it's shaped like a bar of Dove soap. I feel like some computer mouses have been designed with the Dove soap bar in mind, it's so close. And then there is certain automobile design that also looks like a bar of Dove soap, most significantly an early Toyota Camry—though I'm not if I didn't think that because the name Camry reminded me of Camay soap—I think it was the combination of the name and the shape, but I called that “the soap bar car.”

The smell of Dove is so common and recognizable that you could put it in the dictionary of smells under “soap” as an example of what soap smells like. (I realize there may actually be a dictionary of smells that I don't know about yet, but if not, I am looking forward to the actual dictionary of smells, someday!) The bar is pure white, and the smell smells white and clean, like soap, like Dove, like you'd imagine a dove (the bird) to smell, if you didn't know better—that it probably smells a lot like a duck. I'm giving it one more good smell here, but I just can't nail it down (is it floral?—maybe, I don't know). I guess it smells like Dove soap. It's pleasant to me, and I might be buying some in the future, for nostalgia's sake, but if it was the only soap smell in the world, that would be sad indeed.

Parrot Botanicals – Jasmine Fragrance (yellow package)

“Jasmine Love”

Parrot Botanicals is a popular soap from Thailand, bar and liquid soap, and they have quite a few varieties—the bar soap varieties have different color wrappers—I've seen at least seven colors—I'm not sure what flavors they all are. I've seen them available at several local Asian markets, so they should be pretty easy to find. I recently bought two of them them to try, the green wrapper and the yellow, and I've been using the yellow one, which is jasmine fragrance. The wrapper is quite lovely, with detailed, symmetrical drawings of parrots and flowers. A separate drawing in the upper left-hand corner, I believe, is jasmine flowers—I'm not sure—there is a word in what I assume is a Thai language by the flower, and the cover otherwise just says “Parrot Botanicals” and then “No. 333.” The Green wrapper also says “No. 333”—so that's not helpful. Anyway, on the back, in very small letters, in English, along with company information and ingredients, it says: “More refreshing with Jasmine Fragrance.”

Of course, you would be able to tell it's jasmine by the smell—you could probably tell from a mile away—it's really strong, but not overwhelming, at least not to me. I can't get enough. The bar itself is a really nice pale yellow color bar of soap – new, it has some relief markings, decorative lines, and a parrot. This has a really nice jasmine soap fragrance, very much similar to the Bee & Flower jasmine soap. It's a pleasant shape, too, a traditional bar soap oval with sharp edges, that then gets smoothed down, of course. It goes pretty fast... not really long lasting, but it's cheap, so that's okay. For how intense the jasmine scent is, it remains pleasant. It's just one of my favorite fragrances, lately, I think—I might go so far as to say, if I was to give up trying a lot of soap, I might just settle on this one. I'm just kind of crazy about jasmine, I guess. I feel a little like I'm in love right now, and this soap, by the time I'm writing this has dwindled to a small nub, and I keep obsessively going back to it, tinier and tinier, smelling it, already mourning it being gone. I didn't think this soap thing would be so heart-wrenching.

Shugar Soapworks - Oatmeal & Coconut

“Alien Brain”

I tried out this soap while I was visiting my brother in Ohio, so I didn't use it from the beginning of the bar, but that's okay. It's something I'd like to do more of, trying other peoples' soap—but that would mean not only vising people more—and no one is inviting me—and also taking a shower or a bath at their house (because you really need to take a shower or a bath to really get the essence of a soap). And definitely no one is inviting me over to take a shower or a bath. I don't know if the name “Shugar” is someone's real name, or it's a cute name for the company (sugar with an “h”). I believe we saw some of this at the dollar store, and the packaging makes it look like a cheaper soap—not real inspired packaging—and it was inexpensive at the dollar store—but it's not a super cheap soap—it's made in California (since 1969!), supposedly triple-milled, and made with all plant-based ingredients—so I'm wagering that this—as far as value goes—might be way up there.

The bar is actually pretty huge, and I'm not sure how long this one was going when I used it, but last I checked there was no soap that grows while you use it, so I'm guessing it was even bigger when it was new. The color is a mild, innocuous beige—that, coupled with the shape and size of this partially used bar, for some reason made me think of durian—so that was a little creepy. Is there a durian soap out there? (Of course there is.) There must be, though I don't know if I'm ready for that. Anyway, there is something about the fruit of a durian, visually, that creeps me out—like it reminds me of a dissected brain, or a fetal pig or something. I don't know what it is—and it's not really fair of me to bring that association here (not fair to durian, and definitely not to this soap). The soap has a mild, pleasant smell—I may or may not have guessed coconut, had I not known. Something about oatmeal soap bugs me, too—for no good reason. I'd really rather if it was just oat soap, like made from oats, but oatmeal makes me think of cooked oatmeal, which is kind of slimy in texture—not something I'd think of washing with. Soap based on foods is okay, of course, but certain foods, like say, macaroni and cheese soap—no. So overall, I'm all for this soap, but probably won't be buying any for myself anytime soon. There are just too many good choices yet to try. Now if I can only get invited to bathe at someones house who has some really questionable (or really expensive) soap, that would be ideal.

Mysore Sandal Soap

“Rich Hippie”

This is an excellent and inexpensive sandalwood soap from India. I had used this soap before and I was a little afraid of it because it makes your whole bathroom smell like sandalwood, but this time around it didn't bother me and in fact I've very much enjoyed it. It feels a little rough, in texture, or that might even be my imagination, and it's a little “warm”—meaning, I don't know what exactly—but if you know what I'm talking about you know. It is intense, and not real subtle, as it contains sandalwood oil—“nature's gift.” It's a lovely light brown color with the names “Mysore Sandal Soap” on one side and “Govt. Soap Factory Bangalore” on the other. The box is itself a work of art and would, if produced in the US, coast more than the soap: it's red and green with pink and yellow flowers, and the words “Mysore Sandal Soap” in raised, red metallic letters!

I feel like at one time I was kind of freaked out by this soap, but I'm much more into it now. I really like how strong the woodsy, rich sandalwood fragrance is, and how it feels. It's gotten to be one of my favorites now—I'm kind of thinking that if I just needed an everyday bar of soap and I wasn't busy trying out lots of new ones, I'd just use this pretty regularly. But then, would the intensity get to me after awhile? I don't know. Anyway, I'm looking for one more description to try to round out my verbal feelings about this soap—which is now down to its final nub—and the thing I keep coming back to is that it's the warmest soap I've used—though the word “warm,” in itself, never seems like much of a compliment, as it implies a kind of blandness—so maybe the most fitting thing would be to describe this soap as “hot.” That doesn't work either. You see my problem.