Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Soap Opera Series: No 1 - Use It Or Lose It: My Albino Bar Of Roger & Gallet Sandalwood Soap

Strange albino sandalwood soap
The other day, around that virtual water cooler that is my - and so many other people's these days - Facebook wall, a lively discussion about soap unfolded.  To my great surprise, it turns out that soap is considered deeply old-fashioned these days, presumably because consumers have moved over to the new generation of pump-dispensed "hand" and "body washes".  As one Facebook friend commented:

"I didn't know anyone (under 70) still used soap.  It's damn hard to find in the supermarkets these days.  When looking a while back for my husband's (much) older sister we spent ages till we found a tiny selection hiding on the bottom shelf..."

She went on to confirm the switch to other dispensing formats:

"Shower gel in the shower/bath, liquid soap for hands.  The supermarket says there's very little demand for tablet soap, and the only person I know who uses it is my Mum (obviously 'over 70'), and, as I say, my husband's much older sister."

Then my sister-in-law chimed in to suggest where traditional soap tablets may still be found:

"I think soap has migrated from supermarkets to be the mainstay of artisanal market stalls.  I bulk buy at a French fair that comes to Edinburgh twice a year.  That, and stealing hotel toiletries."

My own worryingly extensive - but culturally diverse - collection of stolen hotel soap
So this was all very interesting, for while I do have a bottle of liquid soap in the bathroom for visitors, I am myself still wedded to the smoothly contoured physicality of the conventional bar: for its tactile qualities, invariably restful pastel colours and of course for its scent... And I am considerably under 70, I should point out, and not noticeably of retro proclivities.  I do not find myself drawn unduly to other throwback toiletries such as Yardley talc or Badedas bubble bath.

But still, I cling to hard bars of soap.  And so it was that the other day I had more or less finished a tablet of Morny Sandalwood (the remaining cracked sliver of which has now been relegated to the kitchen - which has become something of a donkey sanctuary for unprepossessing soap remnants).

Unsightly soap slivers on the kitchen windowsill
And meanwhile, back in the bathroom, I finally broached the bar of Roger & Gallet Sandalwood Soap featured in this earlier post.  I have a special attachment to the Bois de Santal or sandalwood one, for someone I was rather keen on used to use it years ago.  Around that time I bought myself one of those individual round dishes the Roger & Gallet soap comes in and kept it on a high shelf, occasionally taking it down to sniff the Proustian scent of sandalwood through the wrapper.  But it wasn't till the other day that I actually took the wrapper off - and revealed the startlingly white and unscented bar concealed within its scrunchy folds.

How very strange!  My recollection was that sandalwood soap was always coloured - anything from a yellowy cream through to a deeper orange shade - but this was the first time I had ever encountered a pure white sandalwood bar.  I figured that the perfume might well have evaporated over the years - and my reading of soap making forums tends to confirm this - but was suprised to see such an albino-looking appearance.  But it seems that colour too may fade with time, and in fairness I had kept it for an awfully long time.

Geo F Trumper sandalwood soap - pale, but within acceptable pantone parameters
Yes, it was looking like a case of "use it or lose it" on both the dimensions of colour and perfume, but before accepting this, I decided to double check what exact colour this soap had been originally.  A cursory trawl of Google images strongly points to all sandalwood soap being somewhere along the light yellowy-cream to orange spectrum.  My expired bar of Morny sandalwood was squarely in the apricot area of the bell curve, for example, while the Geo F Trumper shaving soap pictured above (spotted during the perfume crawl the other weekend), clocked in at the creamier yellow end.

The reassuringly apricot tone of Morny sandalwood soap
First off, I inquired of the person who had sparked the sentimental association, with whom I am still in contact:

"Ummm....come to think of it, it may have been a light colour....I seem to recall a light yellow...but that may have been the colouring."

Indeed so, but it is the colour itself I am after, however contrived.

Next up, I rang the Customer Service department for Roger & Gallet, which turns out to be part of the Vichy group.  After an incredibly long wait, the lady who answered said she had no personal experience of the soap, and no images to hand of a bar in either its wrapped or - more importantly - unwrapped state.  On her recommendation, I proceeded to call five Roger & Gallet stockists dotted around the country - in what I hoped would be fairly upmarket locations - hoping to skew the chances that I might stumble upon a pharmacy assistant who incorporated this rather high end brand into her own skincare regime.  This proved to be fairly hit and miss as a research method, as the staff in the stores tended not to be users in fact, and of course the wrapping means that the only people who could help me were those who had ever seen a bar open.

Roger & Gallet sandalwood soap in its teasingly wrapped state

So for what they are worth, here are the results of my small straw poll of stockists:

- One pharmacy didn't answer.

- One pharmacy took ages to answer, and a further ages again to ascertain that they stocked Roger & Gallet, even though I had found them on a stockist list, and took that as a given.  I was told to call back after three to speak to someone else "who might know more".

- One pharmacy helpfully scrutinised several bars through their wrappers and pronounced the soap to be "a creamy neutral, like they all are", adding the disclaimer: "but don't take my word for it, as it was through blue paper".

- One pharmacy remembered the sandalwood soap as being "a dark white colour - you know, the way most soap tends to be these days".  I take "dark white" still to be crucially different from the present "stark white"...

- The final pharmacy came up with the pithy response: "cream, I assume", again based on peering through the wrapper on a "without prejudice" basis.

Additional titbits to share from my inquiries are the fact that one pharmacy said I should take a look on Ebay for images(!) - yes, and why don't I just buy it there while I am at it...?  Another warned me off using my albino bar altogether.  Hey, you are speaking to the woman who reheats non-reheatable foodstuffs with impunity days after they were first cooked!  Colourless, odourless soap holds no terrors for me....

So there we have it.  On balance, I think this bar has simply faded from its original off-white-to-yellow colour, and the scent has disappeared altogether.  In one final burst of googling, I chanced upon this image of a vintage bar of Roger & Gallet sandalwood soap.  Oh my, just look how dark it is!

Roget & Gallet Sandalwood soap from its pigment-rich heyday
My recent experience does beg the question whether readers have any preconceptions of what colour a soap should be (I still expect something yellowy-orange in the case of sandalwood, for example) - or a perfume indeed.  I like my amber scents to be a little bit orange, for instance - I think I might feel shortchanged with a completely colourless one. you have any colour prejudice when it comes to scented products of any kind?  Let me know!

Photo of blue dish of Roger & Gallet soap from ebay, photo of vintage version from, other photos my own


Zazie said...

Glad to find another R%G soap fan!
I own many R&Gs(but not the santal one), and they all come in varying shades of white - not "optical white", but still very very light and "pale" (yet they are powerfully scented).
I am surprised by your survey on soap bars: I'm 38 and I never buy liquid soap (except for guests).
I supposed everyone new about the fact that liquid soaps/shower gels do not get properly rinsed away, their residues cause obvious consequences for your skin health and appearence (nothing dramatic, but you become more prone to irritation, allergies, etc). Liquid soaps are great when you share your soap with many people, so I (and most people I know, really, family or friends) relegate them to the guest bathroom.
Plus a luxuriously scented and carefully crafted bar is such a pleasure to unwrap... Why should anyone prefer the liquid???

Hazel said...

I see the current star of our soap horde is some Kalahari Melon and Scrub Olive from SA. It is black (or possibly bleck). Everything else tends to be on the white/cream/apricot/pale avocado spectrum.

Vanessa said...

Hi Zazie,

Glad to meet another R & G fan! Thanks for your colour assessment of the range, seeing as I am woefully out of touch with the current degree of pigmentation. :-)

I would hesitate to dignify the small exchange on my Facebook wall as a "survey", though that said, when I go into friends' homes these days, I see fewer and fewer cakes of soap about, it must be said.

I had no idea that the liquid style of hand and body wash left residues - that is interesting to hear. I am drawn to the old-fashioned kind on purely aesthetic and tactile grounds. And I do so agree that there is great pleasure in unwrapping soap bars. Funny really that it took me so long to get round to using this one. I can confirm that it is completely odourless though, so I have clearly left it way too late!

Vanessa said...

Hi Hazel (SIL!),

That soap you mention (purloined from a hotel or purchased with ready money?) sounds rather unusual. I have seen black soap once before, but I can't recall where. It wasn't even coal tar, hehe.

And you have reminded me of the avocado colourway, which is also a staple of the soap spectrum, often in conjunction with an "olive" element, though clearly not in the case of this melon and olive one!

odonata9 said...

I am one of those that does not often use soap. I do sometimes in the shower - I alternate between soap and shower gel. And almost all of my friends use liquid soaps for handwashing at least - less sure about the showering part but shower gels are extremely popular. Liquid soaps seem to me to be less messy and can come in lovely scents too - Mrs. Meyers rhubarb was a recent favorite adn amazingly realistic! And my husband is a fragrance-phobe (lucky me!), so he would complain about any especially fragrant soap stinking up the bathroom, so I have to use shower gel for my smelly fix since it is contained.

Nancy H. said...

Hi Vanessa,

In the US, soap in bar form (we say bar instead of tablet) is still well represented on store shelves. The handmade/artisanal soap bar business is also very strong. I love bar soap. A new bar of wonderfully scented soap is one of life's small joys. I used to love R&G Fern soap. It had the best green fragrance.

Hazel said...

I'm not seeing black as a colour hotel toiletries are going to adopt any time soon.

The other expensive holdings are from a shop in Mantua - colour undetermined since they are wrapped in this lovely Liberty-level floral papers.

Vanessa said...

Hi odonata9,

Thanks for stopping by, and for sharing the showering - and hand washing - habits of your household and friends. It is all useful anecdotal evidence. We don't have the Mrs Meyers range here but I have read a number of blog posts about it and it seems to have a lot of fans.

Interesting about your husband complaining about the the scent in soap stinking up the bathroom(!). I have another Soap Opera post in mind that touches on that opposite problem to the one I have here with my odourless Roger & Gallet bar. As you say, shower gel is "contained" in!

Vanessa said...

Hi Nancy,

I think of the three words for soap: bar, tablet and cake, I mostly only say bar. Then maybe tablet for a small guest soap and cake for a bar that was round, but to be frank I have never really given any thought to what word I use when!

Yes, handmade / artisanal soap is really booming here too. Which reminds me that my friend gave me a soap making kit that you add your own perfume to. She said she would help me do the business, and I must give some thought to which of my perfumes I wish to commit to the soap. Why, that is even more stressful than committing to a Travalo!

R & G Fern soap I don't believe I have tried, but it sounds nice. Wordbird/Birdie was saying on my Facebook wall that she rates the Carnation one.

olenska said...

One of my 'fume friends introduced me to Paintbox Soapworks, whose soaps are all very intense, dark colors (and wonderful fragrances). "The Englishman" is a saddle-leather-and-tea scented soap that is colored a beautiful obsidian-- I love it.

As for sandalwood soap, I use Lanman & Murray's (or is that Murray & Lanman's?) Sandalo, which is a thick chunk of lovely tawny-brown goodness. An older female relative pf mine who lived through the Great Depression taught me always to let a bar of soap air-harden so that it will dissolve more slowly and last longer. So those older, deeply veined bars of soap in that photo look hardy and venerable rather than unsightly to me. :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Hazel,

Hmm, I reckon that's a pretty safe bet of yours!

I know the sort of Italian bar of soap you mean. My friend Lovethescents gave me one which is also wrapped in that Liberty style of paper. It has olive oil in it, so I am guessing that its colour may be in the avocado zone, as per our earlier discussion!

Vanessa said...

Hi olenska,

I just had a peek on Etsy and that looks like an interesting and rather quirky line. Hazel may be on trend with her black soap after all...

As for your sandalwood soap pick, I am heartened to learn that it is "tawny-brown" and not brilliant white!

It would appear that I have been adopting your relative's air-hardening method of soap care all this while, and I must say that the soaps have lasted for ages, albeit becoming somewhat cracked towards the end. I have an amber scented one that Wordbird/Birdie gave me after I moved, and which is only getting thin and worn now. It is also curved in shape, so I have made sure to turn it upside down on the soap dish to dry, like an arch!

Then when I was with Mr Bonkers, one of his very few domestic roles was to act as "soap joiner"; he was responsible for pressing all the tiny sliver remnants together into one patchwork block. Remarkably they used to stay as one bar afterwards, at least for a while...Much like us, indeed. : - )

Kafka said...

I switched to liquid soap because I hated the milky puddle or soap residue left on the soap stands after using soap in hard form. Then, when I started to do reviews, I desperately needed unscented soap to use and had to go back to the solid form.

How very sad to hear that lovely sandalwood soap is a case of "use it or lose it" in terms of both colour and scent. But I am hugely impressed by the degree to which you investigated the issue and went on the hunt for an answer! LOL! In a past life, you must have been a detective. Perhaps working a missing person's case? ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Kafka,

Given your very understandable issues with soap residue, may I suggest that you work on your air-hardening techniques? :-). Looks like you still need to engage quite often with the hard stuff...

Maybe I was a detective in a past life, haha, though given my squeamishness around blood I wouldn't have lasted long.

Meanwhile, in this one, colleagues have likened me to the market research equivalent of the Canadian Mounted Police. Similar dogged inquiries have featured in past posts, notably when a bottle of Guerlain Plus Que Jamais smelt like a watered down travesty of itself - Moins Que Jamais if you will.

Ines said...

I haven't read the comments so I don't know if anyone suggested it but your soap could still be retaining some smell trapped inside - I do hope you're going to use it? I mean, can soap get spoiled?
And speaking of soap, my boyfriend uses it for washing hands (I prefer the liquid one) and I have a tendency of using some for showers (those with high content of hydrating stuff). Usually artisanal or L'Occitane's.

Vanessa said...

Hi Ines

It is too early to tell whether the soap may have some smell trapped inside, but I will report back when I am nearer to the core...this may take some months, mind!

And I am indeed using it - an albino and odourless bar holds no terror for me. My mother used to say: "You eat a peck of dirt before you die", which I find myself applying to all sorts of situations! I think "a peck" was quite a generous measure in the old days.

I see you and your boyfriend illustrate both sides of the "hard or liquid" argument. I don't think hard soap's days are numbered quite yet...

Tara said...

I also applaud your investigative efforts!

After using liquid soap for the last 10 years, I'm really enjoying using the bar you kindly gave me and others when we were at Les Senteurs. There's a nice tactile, almost meditative payback you get when rolling it around in your hands. I'd assumed bar soaps were bad for the eczema I get on my hands, but maybe not?

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Thanks! I do seem to be a bit of a one for investigating things more than they perhaps warrant... It's my inner market researcher I expect - I am very driven that way. : - )

Oh, I had forgotten all about those bars I brought to Les Senteurs. "Tactile, meditative payback" is a lovely way to describe the effect of handling yours. I think I gave you and B both one with amber in it? I do hope you don't get eczema from it - stop at the first sign of irritation!

Undina said...

Vanessa, you are my hero! I enjoy the way you do things. I can't imagine myself calling anywhere to inquire about anything that doesn't involve money transaction (me buying something, ordering a service, etc.)

I stopped bringing home any hotel toiletries... but those cute soaps. We use them both to wash hands and in the shower. So in the last 12 years (?) I bought just two soap bars: one linden scented french soap on one of my trips last year (it's features in the linden post with Rusty sniffing it) and one recently - a bar on a roap - for my vSO to use in a shower (it dries better while hanging).
Several years ago I was gifted an expensive set of lemon-scented soaps from a well-known store. Since those bars were huge I didn't get to them in several years since we prefer much smaller ones. When recently I finally decided to use them, the smell was gone completely. I was very surprised and decided not to experiment with them.
As to the color... There are so many artisan soaps everywhere that I do not expect a soap to have any color limitations :)

Cynnamon said...

For various reasons I believe that your sandalwood soap was accidentally made of a batch of unscented and uncoloured soap dough.

The white on the picture of your soap is far to bright that it could be due to loss of colour. It looks like whitened soap base.

A total lack of scent is extremely unusual, as well. It's true that soaps lose part of their scent over the years, but not to the extent that the soap seems completely scentless. I've been collecting soaps for all my adult life and even the soaps that are over 30 years old still have a (at least faint) scent.

You could try to start using your soap. When you have washed off the outer layer and there is still no scent, then I'm sure that your soap never was scented.

Another reason why I believe that the soap never was scented is, that often soaps that have a light creme or beige colouring don't look like that because colour was added to the soap but due to the reaction of the perfume oil with the soap base. If that is the case with your soap, no scent means no colour.

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

I am glad you enjoyed this tale, and to be honest I thought of you as I was writing it, for we both share a general dogged determination when it comes to analysis and information gathering. However, I am definitely weaker than you on the presentation side... : - )

I am glad to learn that you are still a fan of old-style soap, and intrigued to hear your story of the large lemon ones losing their scent. And perhaps I should raise my colour expectations, as you say, for we do have a choice to go down the artisanal route.

I tend to agree with you about preferring smaller bars of soap as a rule; I have a couple of lovely large ones that are nice to smell and handle, but which I sense I may also not start using any time soon. Best keep checking they are still scented from time to time!

: - )

Kathy Bungard said...

A topic after my heart since Roger & Gallet is what got me into this whole crazy world of fragrance. A friend visited Paris and brought back a box of R&G Tea Rose for me and when I inhaled that gorgeous waft of perfect rose I was hooked.

A googling of R&G to see where I might be able to buy more brought me to places like Basenotes, Make up Alley and Luckyscent and now a couple of years and several hundred dollars later I don't know what I would have done if my friend hadn't brought that gift.

I did buy some older gift R&G's on ebay for the guest bathroom and yes they do diminish over time but then so do we 'old' people who still use soap :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Cynnamon,

Thanks so much for dropping by and sharing your soap aging and -making knowledge - it was most enlightening, especially the bit about the colour needing to react to the perfume oil to "take" in the bar, such that "no scent means no colour". I would say you have solved the mystery, were it not for the fact that I do distinctly recall smelling sandalwood through the wrapper when I first owned it. Unless it was the placebo effect, and I imagined the scent because I expected it. Now that I have sight of its bright white colour, maybe the placebo effect is no longer sustainable...It's an interesting conundrum!

I am already using my albino soap, which is fine, if a little lacking in sensory qualities. I could take it back and complain if it weren't for the fact that I bought it about 8 years ago - and haven't the faintest idea where!

Vanessa said...

Hi Kathy,

Thanks for sharing your scented story with us - how wonderful that it was Roger & Gallet that precipitated your descent into the fragrance "rabbit hole", as we say.

I must check out that tea rose one, now...

Interesting that you have also experienced this fading scent phenomenon, and I love your crack about us all diminishing with age - so true!

Natalie said...

I love bar soap, and had no idea it was on the "outs." What a shame. You raise an interesting question about color. I guess my preferred shade is a sort of oatmeal. The illusion of it being natural, perhaps? It also has the additional advantage of not annoying Mr. APB, who says the fancy colored kinds stain the bath.

Vanessa said...

Hi Natalie,

Hmm, oatmeal sounds nice. With speckles, even? Like Mr APB, I am not too keen on very vivid shades of soap, though I definitely like a bit more colour interest than this pure white!

Martha said...

I'm surprised that so many people are switching away from hard soap to gels. We, being contrary, have essentially done the opposite - after seeing a film on the evils of plastic packaging, we started using shampoo bars instead of bottles of shampoo. I can't actually claim any virtue here, because I still use plastic ziptop bags (and plastic-bottled dish soap) lavishly in the kitchen.

I like soap to be an appealing color that would make me want to take a bite of it if I were a toddler. Apricot, lime green, butter yellow, cream, all sorts of gentle candylike pastel colors. Except, usually, for pink. Pink soap annoys me.

Vanessa said...

Hi Martha,

Shampoo bars, how very pioneering of you! I will overlook your lavish plastic use elsewhere...

Yes, I could run to gentle pastel colours, though maybe not quite tipping over into "candylike". Well, I may be thinking of M & Ms here, which are a little vivid as candies go.

Sorry you are troubled by pink soap. By all means send your spare bars my way, unless you also suffer from soap postal phobia. ;-)

Gil said...

Fantastic post. I loved the journey of discovery that you went through - very informative AND hilarious!

Vanessa said...

Hi Gil,

Nice of you to drop by, and I am pleased you enjoyed the post!

galant said...

Just catching up with this discussion on soap. I thought I was the only old-fashioned person still using it. I can't abide handwash liquid in the bathroom (and to Americans I mean a room with a bath/basin/loo/shower, and not a euphemism for the lavatory) as it's nasty slimy stuff. I have managed to find one that is not very slimy (a lavender one) which is kept in the kitchen. But I digress ... I love good quality triple milled scented soap. I use Floris and Penhaligon's when I want to splash out (sorry, no pun intended), and Morny for the budget stuff. However, even Morny has been tinkering with the scent and Fern is no longer the lovely scent that it once was. Penhaligon's Blenheim Bouquet is what I love best.
I also sometimes buy some French soap from a health food store; there are three types: lavender, almond (which smells more like eau de cologne to me) and honey.
4-7-11 Eau De Cologue soap is lovely, too, for a fresh citrus smell.
Long live soap!

Vanessa said...

Hi galant,

Pleased to meet a fellow solid soap lover - funnily enough, I received a lovely pottery bowl for Christmas and have arranged my many soap bars in it - makes a lovely display - and the contents are almost (but not quite) too good to use!

Thanks for the heads up on the Blenheim Bouquet and Eau de Cologne soaps - I can imagine how both of those would be pleasantly bracing. Oh, and I bought myself some mini-bars of Arran Aromatics Milk Soap recently, and they smell very comforting. I also have some honey and shea on the go, and one of those Morny sandalwood ones pictured.

Anonymous said...

Since 1990 is soap liquid. Like bathfoam. Solid soap is sometimes outdated. But sometimes not. There are a lot of people who wash themselves with solid soap. It can be very nice. And the scent of that piece of solid soap smells delicious.

Vanessa said...

Hi Anonymous,

I agree that the market is divided on this point of solid vs liquid. I must say I see a role for both.