Something not around when you look for it? Blame Millennials.
I’m talking about soap. Oh, it’s not that Millenials don’t want to get clean, they just don’t seem to like bars of soap.
My earliest memories of soap and shampoo go back to bath time as a kid. Probably every household at that time had Johnson and Johnson’s baby shampoo because of their No More Tears claim. The claim turned out to be a valid one! Their baby shampoo was introduced in 1953 and has dominated sales of baby shampoos ever since. That product was made with some alternative to tranditional soap and has controlled over 75% of the baby shampoo sales and since 1959 the phrase No More Tears has been trademarked.
Bars of soap are a different story. Our bathtubs had the soap my mother preferred, a slightly perfumed pink bar of soap from Camay. That all changed, however, the year I was old enough to go off to camp.
The latter half of the fifties we lived in Syosset, a small village near the north shore of Long Island that bordered the Nassau-Suffolk county line about half-way across the island. Parksville, New York was located off route 17 in upstate New York, just south of the Catskill mountains (and not too far from Woodstock!) Camp Townsend was on Hunter Lake, just a few miles north of Parksville. The camp was owned and operated by a Presbyterian church in Middletown, a larger town less than an hour south. For the princely sum of $40 or $45 a week kids could spend two to six weeks at the camp. The camp had been around since the 1930s and was used primarily by members of the Middletown church who sent about 40-60 kids there each Summer (although it appears that the camp was used on weekends and some special occasions as well). Somehow one or more kids from Syosset went to the camp in 1955, and they had such a good time that word spread in the village. In just a few short years an influx of campers from Syosset started attending the camp, swelling the short-term population to nearly 100 campers.
It was primitive. Campers stayed in cabins that had a single line of electricity for a light bulb on the ceiling, but the cabins were hardly sealed. Water didn’t get inside when it rained, but instead of windows, there were a few four-foot panels that opened up and could be held in place by two by fours attached to the posts between the panels. There was running water for a fountain near the camp director’s cabin and in the dining hall, but no toilets. We had two large, enclosed latrines instead of toilets (one on the girls’ side of the camp and a second one behind the boys’ cabins). Once or twice a week a local farmer came and emptied out the latrines (just like in the movie Woodstock).
There were no showers. Doesn’t that sound like a recipe for ripe smelly campers? Fortunately, the camp had a solution for that problem: soap swims. In spite of some pretty cold mornings (the camp was close to the mountains), we had one or two required swims and two more optional general swims each day. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the required swims were special: they were soap swims. Each camper had to bring a bar of soap down to the lake and wash off. I’m pretty sure that practice would lead to panic in the streets now (think of the environment!), but the small number of campers probably had little impact on a lake that size. There is one potential problem with a soap swim: most soap sinks in water. The camp did their best to make sure campers only brought one kind of soap with them: Ivory Soap.
Proctor and Gamble always advertised Ivory Soap as being 99 and 44/100ths percent pure, and I had always assumed that was the reason it floated. Not true! It turns out that the company figured out how to make floating soap back in 1863, and it started selling the floating soap to consumers in 1879. The trick was to cook up the soap and mix air bubbles into the batter before it hardens. This made the soap lighter than water, and also makes it fun to cook Ivory Soap in a microwave.
Requiring Ivory soap allowed the camp to avoid the misery of searching the bottom of the lake for misplaced bars of soap. It had an additional effect on me. For the first time when I took a bath, I didn’t come out smelling perfumy. From that moment on I somehow associated Ivory soap with being clean, and was careful to take my precious bar of soap home with me when camp ended. It took some whining, but my mother eventually started keeping floating soap in our bathrooms. It probably helped that the soap floated during bath time; Camay sank like a rock, and that meant searching under the soap suds to find it. Oh, I didn’t mention how easily you could create a bubble bath by simply holding soap under the water while the filling up the tub?
Bathrooms back then also had bars of soap next to the sink for washing hands, a ritual that preceded meals. Not so much anymore. I’m not sure when it started, but slowly public bathrooms replaced bars of soap with dispensers that produce liquid soap on demand. Perhaps it was because it was cheaper or perhaps because it stopped people from stealing bars of soap, but we’ve reached the point where the only bars of soap that are left are in the homes of old people: Millenials apparently consider used soap to be covered with germs, and they don’t want to touch used soap.
While this may seem almost laughable to older folks, I can remember times when I went into gas station bathrooms and one look at the dirty, dingy soap prevented me from washing up so I can sympathize with their point of view.
It’s not just Millenials anymore – both of our bathrooms at home now have liquid or foam soap dispensers (thanks, Bevie). We do, however, still have bars of soap in the shower, but we are nearly in the minority now. In a recent year, sales of bars of soap were down 2.2% while sales of liquid soap were up over 10%. 64% of the population still uses bars soap, but the number of households with bars of soap dropped nearly 5% last year!
The news is even sadder for Ivory soap – sales of my favorite floating soap now make up barely 5% of bar soap sales. Dove, a soap that like baby shampoo is made from ingredients different from traditional soap )and that also contains one-quarter cleansing cream), now controls over 21% of the bar soap market, and the next few brands are all deodorant soaps of one sort or another. Camay has nearly disappeared from store shelves and is now sold primarily online, controlling barely 2% of the bar soap market.
It isn’t time to hoard bars of soap yet, but we are getting closer. Back in 1961 liquid soap wasn’t even a thing yet, and the Jarmels reached #12 with their one and only chart record, A Little Bit Of Soap.