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.

Soap Review No. 16