Who Invented Liquid Soap and Why?

One of my top 10 favorite movie lines is "Who invented liquid soap and why?" from the 1985 John Cusack film The Sure Thing. After watching it again recently I realized that in all these years the question has intrigued me, I have never actually done any research into the answer. The quest for the answer would not be an easy one, but I was determined to find out the answer to both parts of the question.

Who invented liquid soap?

Liquid soap was patented by William Shepphard on August 22nd, 1865, listed as "Improved Liquid Soap" in patent number 49,561. Shepphard's discovered that mixing small amounts of soap with large amounts of hartshorn, the horns of the male red deer, resulted in a thick liquid soap that soon became popular in public areas. It stands to reason that if Sheppard's patent was for "Improved liquid soap" that others existed before that time, but information about that is very elusive. So for the purposes of this question, we will credit William Shepphard as the inventor.

Specification forming part of Letters Patent No. 49,561, dated August 22, 1865.
Specification forming part of Letters Patent No. 49,561, dated August 22, 1865. | Source

Why?

Liquid soap has been used since the early 1800's, primarily for washing dishes and clothing. Understanding the reason Shepphard patented his version of liquid soap requires looking at the patent, which states "On account of its superior detergent qualities it is valuable for domestic as well as for manufacturing purposes."

They key here is the word domestic, as much of the liquid soap prior to this invention was used in industry for manufacturing. It appears with this wording that Shepphard was looking at making liquid soap available to the masses for use at home.

Mass Production would take 115 years

It would take another 115 years for a manufacturer to produce liquid soap designed for mass consumption. The Minnetonka Corporation of Chaska, Minnesota released Soft Soap in 1980 (Bradenburger & Krishna, 1995) after a trial run of a product named "Creme Soap on tap", distributed in ceramic dispensers through boutiques. The new soft soap would capture a large portion of the market and launched the liquid soap industry we know today.

Making your own liquid soap at home

References

  • Brandenburger, A. & Krishna, V. (1995) Minnetonka Corp.: From softsoap to eternity. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/product/minnetonka-corp-from-softsoap-to-eternity/an/795163-PDF-ENG

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