History of Fels Naptha Soap

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A family is washing their hands.
A family is washing their hands. (Image: MIXA next/MIXA/Getty Images)

Fels Naptha soap is considered a household staple, with a myriad of uses for cleaning. The history of this famous soap is long and tangled, with near-failures of the manufacturers' business almost preventing the soap's invention and release to the market.

North Carolina to Philadelphia

The Fels Naptha soap story begins in 1861 in the small town of Yanceyville, North Carolina. The local economy was floundering, so the townspeople devised a plan to create a distillery to boost the economy. They set to making a local brand of whiskey, and used the sour mash as feed for pigs. The problem was that the mash wasn't cooked all the way through and proved fatal to the pigs. A local man named Lazarus Fels stepped in, purchased the entire lot of pig carcasses and cooked the fat, combining it with lye to concoct bars of soap. The business had a slow start, so the Fels family moved operations to Baltimore and, in 1873, to Philadelphia.

Fels and Company

Under the name Fels & Company, the Fels family continued to create and sell soap to the wholesale market. It wasn't until Samuel Simeon Fels, the youngest son of the Fels family, joined the company in the late 1800s that Fels & Company created its signature brand. In 1893, Fels & Company released a new type of soap product that incorporated naptha, otherwise known as benzene solvent, in its soap.

The Fels Naptha Difference

Fels Naptha soap was different from its predecessors. The active ingredient of benzene solvent proved to cut through grease and clean surfaces thoroughly. Throughout its century-long history, Fels Naptha soap has been used as a home remedy for rashes, a stain remover for grease-based stains, a base for homemade laundry soap and even a pesticide for worms that bore into dogwood trees.

Fels Naptha Features

Fels Naptha is one of those products that has experienced little change in its appearance and properties throughout its history. Although it is currently made by the Dial Corporation, it still features a basic paper wrapper with an old-fashioned logo.The soap is yellow and longer than most bars of soap. It resembles laundry soap more than body soap.

Health Concerns

Although many people have used Fels Naptha soap on their hair, scalp and skin, it is not intended for bathing use. The active ingredient is an irritant to the eyes and skin. In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services has identified high concentrations of benzene, which is also found in some plastics, rubbers, synthetic fabrics and solvents, as carcinogenic to human beings (see Resources below).

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