A Bar of Soap

Joy and comfort comes from small things.  They can bring flashbacks, memories of a different place and time.   Like the flashbacks triggered by a small luxury, a bar of soap. 

I lived in a shipping container when I worked in Juba, South Sudan.  It was a well kitted out container, with a black plastic tank on the roof that connected to a shower, but it lacked one small thing, a bar of soap.  Normally a container in a compound surrounded by razor wire, catering to foreign aid workers comes with soap but sometimes things don’t make it to places like Juba.  Sometimes stuff like a bar of soap falls off “the back of the truck” or is held up in customs awaiting a “commission.”  Every day after work I came back to the compound covered in dust saturated sweat.  One day I had some time between when I left the radio station and when I was supposed to be behind razor wire in the compound.  I went to a store that sold a range of things, from pocketknives to cell phone chargers to condoms to soap. 

When I attempted to wait my turn, younger people saw my white beard, stepped aside, and said “Please daddy” or “After you grandfather.”  When I got the counter, I bought a big bar of “Imperial Leather” soap. 

When I saw the name “Imperial Leather” I thought it was Kenyan knock off of “English Leather” the “soap on a rope” popular when I was in college.  You could take it to the shower room around your neck and not forget it when you were done.  Imperial Leather has no rope and, as It turns out, English Leather was the knock off.  Imperial Leather the original.

Imperial Leather has a long history.  In 1768 a Russian Count named Orlov, approached Bayleys of Bond Street, London, to create an Eau du Cologne with the scent of Russian saddle leather.  Russian leather was cured with birch oil that gave it a distinctive odor.  The scent was called “Russian Imperial Leather,” then “Russian Leather” and finally “Imperial Leather.”  It was considered a manly scent in the 18th century (was Russian leather used to make “manly footwear) and was employed, not only in toilet water, but in shaving and bar soap.

When I returned to my container after work I got wet in the shower, turned off the water, lathered up with Imperial Leather and turned the water back on to rinse off.  It was pure luxury, a feeling of clean with the smell of Russian cavalry.  I got dressed, splashed on bug repellent, and went for pre-dinner sundowners on the verandah followed by an evening nursing one gin and tonic (others drank considerably more than one, but perhaps they did not use as much mosquito repellant) before heading to my container to pick up the BBC news.

Imperial Leather followed the flag.  The bar I bought was manufactured in Kenya.  Imperial Leather is available throughout former empire in Commonwealth Africa, India, Pakistan, Australia, and New Zealand.  It is also popular in non-colonies that were in the British sphere of influence, including Iran and the Emirates. For some unaccountable reason it is also popular in Denmark.  More on that later.

It became a soap of choice on the home island during World War Two because, as well as lathering well and having a pleasant scent, a bar lasted a long time.  An ad during the war read:

“Imperial Leather Toilet Soap is one of the few luxuries still available to the discriminating. Supplies are obviously limited…  If only because Imperial Leather lasts longer and increases the purchasing power of your coupons, you should buy it wherever and whenever you can.”

(English leather was formulated by an Austrian firm before World War II, also based on Russian tanning soap and was marketed at Russian Leather until the Russians became unpopular in Vienna after World War II.  They renamed it after one of the other occupying powers.  The name and scent were bought by a Catalonian firm and marketed in America, hence the “soap on a rope” of college days.)

On later trips, I bought my bar of Imperial Leather at Woolworths in Nairobi before heading to Juba.  The soap, the lather, the aroma, the clean, was an appreciated luxury.

Two years after my last trip to South Sudan Suzi and I were visiting her AFS sister in Denmark and she had Imperial Leather in her bathroom.  I commented on the memories it brought back and she gave me a bar to take home. 

Suzi found she can get Imperial Leather on Amazon so now, whenever I take a shower and feel the lather and catch the scent my mind travels back to Africa and feel, for a brief moment, like I am in the lap of luxury.

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