I'm currently smashing through the absolutely stunning book The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larsen, which tells in vivid, horrifying, exciting and often funny history of Winston Churchill's first year as Prime Minister of the U.K., 1940. Through exhaustive research, Larsen gives life to Churchill's huge personal and governmental challenges as the momentum of World War II builds to a frenzy: Hitler defeats France and the United States has not yet joined the fight. (Larsen's equally incredible The Devil in the White City, another work of nonfiction that weaves together the concurrent stories of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and serial killer Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, is also worth your time.)
While reading the other day, among all the destruction and tension, a much lighter tidbit caught my eye: the inventory of items ordered by Churchill's wife, Clementine, as the family prepared to move into the PM residence at 10 Downing Street. This list included "wine glasses and tumblers (the whiskey had to go somewhere), grapefruit glasses… knives, jugs, breakfast cups and saucers… 36 bottles of furniture polish… and 78 pounds of Brown Windsor soap, a favorite of both Napoleon and Queen Victoria." Having steeped myself in Churchill's quips and mannerisms and all things British for some 75 pages already, suddenly I found myself wanting Brown Windsor soap, even though I had no idea what it was.
The origins of Brown Windsor soap may be largely hearsay and legend, but it seems to have first come to prominence around 200 years ago. Napoleon, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, even Lewis and Clarke were said to be ardent fans. The soap's basic formula is mostly the same, regardless of retailer. It is, of course, brown. Its fragrance is spicy across the board, with some variation. (By the way, try to avoid confusing the soap with Brown Windsor Soup, a quintessential English stew.)
Herbaria Soap's formula comes from "'Perfumery and Kindred Arts, a Comprehensive Treatise on Perfumery' by Richard Cristiani, published in Philadelphia in 1877" and includes "lavender, bergamot, caraway, petitgrain, cinnamon, and clove." Their version of the stuff also "looks like granite—russet brown with shreds of pure white soap. Coffee makes the rich brown color but adds no aroma."
Another recipe, from Traverse BayBath and Body lists as ingredients including a string of saponified and unrefined oils (olive, coconut, castor, almond, etc.) plus "essential oils of bergamot, caraway, clove, lavender, petitgrain, and cinnamon. aloe, vitamin E."
There's something about an old-school scent in a brick of handmade soap, don't you think? We unfortunately romanticize war and wartime, partially as a coping strategy, partly as propaganda. But Churchill and his soap-loving contemporaries are objectively larger than life individuals who could afford only the best their eras had to offer, so their tastes are, perhaps, to be trusted. Maybe that's what has me clicking around for a few bars of my own.
Problem is, looks like lots of others have the same idea. You'll be hard pressed to find any Brown Windsor Soap available on Amazon for shipment in time for Christmas, but plenty of bars are available direct from small businesses via their websites. Whatever route you go, please just leave some of the splendid stuff for me – or consider yourself among the vile.