The importance of soap to our health and well-being is evident. But what about the humble soap dish? It is such a simple little device that few people think about this humble bathroom fixture, except when it comes time to clean the bathroom. Knowing a little bit more about why soap dishes are even necessary is a fun, and quirky, way to appreciate the significance of hygiene and safety.
Soap is a mixture of astringents or alkaline chemicals suspended in a waxy or fatty substance. Early soaps were semisolid affairs with a texture similar to butter or shortening. Ancient Egyptian sources describe mixing animal fat, vegetable oil and watered wood ashes to make a substance used to treat skin afflictions and to remove ground-in dirt from the hands. The word "soap" comes from Latin and is associated with the Roman legend of Mount Sapo. A fire had burned the woods and the ashes were washed downstream. When the ashes mixed with animal tallow and clay from the riverbanks, it formed a naturally occurring "soap" that made doing laundry in the Tiber River much easier than in other rivers.
Cake soap, or hardened blocks of soap, were not introduced into European and American society until the 17th century when soap making became a thriving trade. Lye, an alkaline substance extracted from the ashes of some barks, was mixed with animal tallow to make soap. Oils and musks were added to make the soap--and the user--smell better. One problem remained, however: soaps became slippery--and dissolved relatively quickly--when left in a pool of standing water such as an early bath tub.
Some of the earliest soap dishes were made of metal wires. More expensive ones were made of porcelain or other fine, if fragile, material. The purpose of the soap dish was to preserve the relatively expensive and luxurious investment for as long as possible. To that end, these soap dishes were designed to allow air to flow around the bar of soap, thus drying it.
In the late 19th century, Sears Roebuck & Co. displayed baths, some with built-in soap dishes and others without, for sale through their mail-order catalog. With the wide network of railroads and guaranteed delivery to the nearest railroad station, Sears Roebuck and Co. spread bathing, bath tubs, and soap dishes throughout the United States within a few decades.
In the 1960s and 1970s, molded fiberglass bath/shower combination units became increasingly common and inexpensive, leading many construction companies and remodelers to embrace them. In addition to offering a more waterproof system for bathing, the soap dish became standard equipment in the majority of bathrooms in America. Prior to this, soap dishes might be mounted on the wall, perched on the lip of the tub, or stuck to the walls of the bathroom or tub by use of suction cups. Regardless of configuration, soap dishes served the same purpose; to dry soap and to contain the semisolid residue that sloughed off wet soap.