You are currently viewing August 2022
Sapoceti toilet soap

August 2022

Object Title: Guerlain sapoceti soap
Object Number: 2012.7

In the 19th and 20th Century much time, effort and money were expended in the pursuit of whales and their natural products. Rendered from blubber, whale oil was undoubtedly the prized commodity. It had many different uses and so was in high demand from manufacturers.

Until the end of the 19th Century the most common uses for whale oil were lamp oil and machine lubricant. However, in the final decades of the 1800s production of whale oil slumped. In the northern hemisphere, whales had been overexploited and lamp oil was beginning to be made from cheaper petroleum derivatives such as kerocene.

As a result of this over exploitation in the north, whaling expanded into the southern hemisphere with the pioneering whaling station at Grytviken, founded in 1904 by Carl Anton Larsen. Whale oil had remained in use as lubrication so there was still a demand for the product. It was essential for ‘batching’ jute fibres, a treatment which allowed jute to be woven mechanically. Jute was a long, natural fibre, second to cotton and had many uses in the 19th century. The move to southern waters coincided with the development of the hydrogenation process. This process could turn liquid whale oil into a solid fat, as well as eliminating its fishy odour. With this development whale oil became a more versatile raw material and therefore more valuable.

A worldwide shortage of vegetable oils in the early 1900s, made worse by the First World War, meant whale oil was widely adopted to produce soap and margarine. The South Georgia Museum has a number of soaps that were produced using whale oil as a main ingredient.

Our object of the month is an example of a toilet soap using whale oil. Guerlain produced sapoceti soap in 1828 and was marketed as a rich soap. Made using whale blubber it was said to cleanse the body but also to whiten the skin.  Guerlain registered this as a trademark in 1926 and again in 1967. The trademark finally expired in 1987 and this product is no longer produced.

Soap was invented by the Romans about 5000 years ago. In Britain in the Middle Ages soap was made and used in making cloth, not for washing people. It was used to remove natural grease from wool, making the fibres easier to handle.  In the 16th Century in Britain, soap was made from tallow. Tallow, or rendered fat, is the most available triglyceride (oils and fats) from animals. It was commonly extracted from beef or mutton fat and whale oil. Each animal species produces a different fatty acid content, resulting in soaps of distinct feel.

To make soap, the fat, animal or vegetable, is treated with alkaline.  The process of saponification changes the fatty acids into alkali salt which is what soap actually is. Traditionally all soap used to be made using animal fat and lye, a strong alkaline solution. Lye was made from water and wood ashes, both saved as bi-products for this purpose. 

Tallow was also used to make cheap candles (rather than more expensive wax). In order to reserve tallow for candles, soap was taxed as a luxury item. It was only as gas lighting became popular, replacing candles that the tax on soap was ended in 1853, giving soap makers the opportunity to expand.  It was also during the industrial revolution with the addition of running water that indoor washing and bathing became more common.

In a domestic setting, soaps were called toilet soaps, used for handwashing and personal cleaning. For making toilet soaps, triglycerides continued to be derived from tallow but expanded to coconut or palm oils.  Soap was also made in Europe, in Spain and France using olive oil.

Soap has been produced for many centuries and over that long period of time the method of production changed very little.

Industrially scale manufactured soaps became more available as advertising campaigns in Europe and America promoted popular awareness of the relationship between cleanliness and health. Sunlight soap was a huge influence and considered to be one of the first internationally successful advertising campaigns. An example of a cleaning product being produced as a consumer commodity.


In modern times, the use of soap has become commonplace but thankfully whale oil is no longer an ingredient.

The use of whale oil had a steady decline starting in the late 19th century due to the development of superior alternatives, and later, the passing of environmental laws. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which has all but eliminated the use of whale oil today.