My mother always had an ancient, orange, swayback bar of Fels-Naphtha soap near the laundry tubs. It always sat beside the box of Rinso. So did my wife’s Japanese-American mother. It was meant for laundry, but we used it on small patches of our skin to wash off traces of poison-ivy sap.
Now, I am often looking for some kind of soap, any kind, to sponge off a stain on my clothes. A bar of Fels-Naphtha would be perfect.
When I mentioned Fels-Naphtha soap to the young staff in my local supermarket, they didn’t know what I was talking about and pointed me to liquid specialty products like “Shout” designed to remove stains. Perhaps they would work better, but my heart was set on Fels-Naphtha.
The early Fels-Naphtha soap (formulated in 1893 in Baltimore) actually contained naphtha, a cut from petroleum distillation like mineral spirits. Naphtha was found to be carcinogenic, and the product was reformulated without it. Early on, the company moved to Philadelphia, was sold to the Greyhound Corporation who folded the product into their Dial Corporation. Yada, yada, yada, it is now made by Purex (without naphtha). My local hardware store has the bars (they also carry glass percolator tops). Read more at http://www.purex.com. The formulation was changed again recently and reviews on the new formulation are mixed.
So, it no longer contains naphtha, is no longer made in Philadelphia, and may not even work very well anymore. but I keep a bar near the basement laundry tubs anyway. It looks like it belongs there.
(Riding the train back from Philadelphia, I pass an old smoke stack with “Fels-Naphtha” set in the bricks, but this is near Darby. Perhaps this is where it really was made. Now, the stack is covered with cell-phone relay equipment.)