Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

ivory soap


In the store the other day, I stood before an array of bath soap.

Blue packages, green ones, yellow ones, white.

Which brand to choose?

There’s Irish Spring – which I don’t buy because its scent is overwhelming and because 20 years ago its television commercials annoyed me.

But now, as I try to recall the Irish Spring tune, my mind drifts instead to Lucky Charms commercials. All I can come up with is “they’re magically delicious” which is obviously wrong for Irish Spring.

Standing in the soap aisle, I look for something without a strong fragrance. Aromatherapy is an overused marketing concept and to tell you the truth, my nose is a little tired of smelling perfumes all day long.

Nearly every household product is scented: dish soap, lotions, shampoos and cleaning products, including bleach. I think it’s inappropriate to make bleach smell pleasant – should a person really be sniffing that stuff?

Remember the smell of… nothing? Remember what air, fresh air, used to smell like? I want some of that.

OK, I’m stepping down from my aromatic soapbox now.

Ivory does have a scent, but not an overpowering one, so I selected a 3-pack of the white bar soap which has been around forever (or at least since 1879.)

When I was a kid, there were fewer soaps to choose from and Ivory was the brand my mother purchased.

My mom kept a bar of Ivory at the bathtub (Ivory floats!) and one at the sink. My dad used Lava soap, that gritty green bar that was good for scrubbing paint and grease off hands.

It’s been years, I suppose, since my last Ivory purchase. As I unwrapped a fresh bar, the clean scent reminded me of a dog, a dog that I carved out of a bar of soap when I was a kid.

When my brother and I were 10 and 8, respectively, a woman from our Mennonite church, Ruth Deckert, gave art lessons to Leon and me.

At her kitchen table, Ruth taught us how to draw. We used soft-leaded pencils and gummy art erasers. Then we progressed to charcoal and pastels. At some point, Ruth asked us to each bring a bar of Ivory soap; we were going to carve an object.

I think my brother made a fish. And I carved a dog, or at least the head and shoulders of something that looked sort of like a Labrador retriever, a white Lab obviously.

The soft fragrance of Ivory settled into the folds of my brain as I nicked away at the soap, transforming the rectangular bar into a lopsided dog bust with one ear sort of misplaced.

Ruth had us scoop together the white soap shavings that had landed on her table. Mennonites tend to be thrifty, especially Mennonites who lived through the Depression. They save and reuse everything.

(Joke: Do you know how copper wire was invented? // By two Mennonites, stretching a penny.)

So Ruth wrapped up the white Ivory bits from her kitchen table, the pieces of soap that were neither dog nor fish and said, “Give these shavings to your mother and she can put them in with her next load of laundry.”

I think I threw the soap scraps away.

That soap dog with the misplaced ear became a gift to my grandmother in Arkansas. I’m grateful that she didn’t use it herself as soap – so easily it could’ve gone the way of soap-on-a-leash, but Grandma, bless her heart, placed my Ivory dog on her living room bookshelf.

Each time I visited my grandparents I’d pick up that white Labrador retriever off the shelf and admire my first piece of sculpture. And I’d bring it to my nose for a long inhalation.

That work of art has been lost to time, but now that I’m using Ivory these days in the shower, the soapy-dog smell comes back each time I lather up. And as dogs go, the Ivory soap ones smell pretty clean.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh


  1. The soap I carved was indeed a fish, modeled after carp from the Arkansas River. There’s nothing like carving to help one realize how finely detailed a fish is and how little one knows about how its proportions fit together. As Cheryl wrote, though, Ivory artwork’s scent and rough beauty last a lifetime.

  2. How delightful! Millard had the Cub Scouts carve with Ivory soap 2 or 3 years ago. They used knives that were donated by Long John Silvers – those plastic ones that do not cut anything. It was a fun time for them.
    You did it again, Cheryl. Brought many memories back to us. Thank You for “Keep on keeping on!”

  3. Karla – I believe that’s a different Deckert family that has the Rhonda. UNLESS Esther (Ruth’s daughter) has a daughter named Rhonda. I don’t know the name of Esther’s daughter(s).

    Thanks, everyone! Glad you enjoyed the column! 🙂

  4. I carved Ivory in Bible School about 58 years ago. I remember the smell and glad it is available today. This is kind of new territory for a column, Cheryl. I like the way it connects two ends of your history into a circle of experience.

  5. Thank you for sharing your dislike of the saturation of scents we’re subjected to on a daily basis! I seem to be allergic to strong scents, so life can be a bit difficult. It’s especially hard to find products with little or no scents! I like Ivory, too. But it’s getting harder to find the liquid variety for handwashing. I also carved a bar of Ivory in Jr High art class. It started out as one thing & ended up being something else by the time I was through! Oh, well.

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