Happy Sunday everyone! Today, we’re visiting Marseilles with Vanessa Couchman, and learning about soap-making in Marseilles…
Thank you for inviting me, Jen. It’s great to be back.
As it’s Sunday, here’s a nice clean subject. We all use soap, don’t we? (At least, I hope so!). It’s the kind of product we take for granted these days. I certainly did until I decided to set part of my latest novel in a soap factory in the southern French city of Marseille.
Soap has been made for centuries and Marseille became a centre of production. The olive oil needed to make the soap was in plentiful supply. Also, the city was a major port and imported other soap ingredients and exported the finished product. In addition, Marseille’s warm but windy climate helped to solidify the soap.
By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, the Marseille area had 65 savonneries (soap factories), which between them boasted 280 soap-making vats. The industry was at its peak during the 19th century. Traditional Savon de Marseille has a distinctive cube shape and comes in two colours, green (made with olive oil) and beige-white (made with copra or palm oil).
Okay, but how do you turn a liquid into a solid? This question exercises my heroine until she sees the process for herself. The master soap-makers’ work must have seemed like alchemy. The oil had to be heated with soda ash in a giant cauldron and then went through various other stages until it was poured into large flat trays to solidify and dry. It was cut into cubes and stamped with the savonnerie’s own mark. The whole process took about 10 days.
Soap had many uses. People in the 18th century, when my novel is set, used it mainly for washing clothes and for household cleaning. It was also used in medicine for relieving skin allergies and in the textile industry for washing fabric.
By the 19th century, almost every household in France had its cake of Savon de Marseille. In the days before washing machines, women did their laundry at lavoirs, washing places, often sited at the source of a spring. Where I live, in southwest France, you can still see many of them. My heart quails when I think what hard work doing the laundry must have been!
During World War II, soap was rationed like everything else. By the end of the war, the monthly soap ration had fallen to 75 grams. That’s not very much when you consider people had to make do with it for washing laundry, as well as themselves.
Today, industrial processes have simplified soap-making. But authentic Savon de Marseille is still made according to the long-standing methods and prescribed ingredients.
What I love about writing historical fiction is the opportunity to research into topics like this.
Vanessa Couchman is a novelist, short story author and freelance writer and has lived in southwest France since 1997. Her first novel, The House at Zaronza (Crooked Cat, 2014) is set in early 20th-century Corsica and at the Western Front during World War I. She has just completed her second novel, The Corsican Widow, and plans further Corsica novels. Vanessa’s short stories have won and been placed in creative writing competitions and published in anthologies.
The House at Zaronza is available in paperback and e-book format from: