It is summer and you’ve been working in your garden. You come inside after weeding and swatting mosquitoes. Your hands are covered in grime, sweat and bug guts.

You go to a bathroom sink to wash your hands. On the left side of the sink is a bar of soap. It is robin-egg blue and looks brand-new. On the right side is a bottle of hand soap. The soap inside is the color of gold and the label is festooned with bees and flowers. On it you read the words “honey vanilla” in a flowery, golden script.

Which soap do you use to wash your hands? Why?

I will always choose liquid soap. And when I stop to think about why I make that choice, the word “novelty” comes to mind. I am 52 and sometimes think of all the things that “didn’t exist” when I was born in 1970. The internet, cellphones and ranch-flavored Doritos come to mind. 

Because I associate liquid soap with novelty, I looked up the history of liquid soap online and discovered the following soapy fact: Liquid soap was not mass-marketed in America until 1980. The brand is called Soft Soap and the company that made it, Minnetonka, so believed in its commercial appeal that they bought up all the companies that make pump dispensers so bigger soap companies wouldn’t be able to enter the market.

Their confidence in liquid soap was well placed, because U.S. liquid soap sales in 2016 equaled those of bar soap, and marketing projections all the way out to 2027 indicate liquid soap’s increasing dominance. As a side note, Colgate-Palmolive — think Irish Spring — so wanted a stake in the liquid soap market that in 1987 they bought Minnetonka. Which somehow leads me back to the idea of liquid soap as a novelty item.

In 1979 I washed my hands with bar soap. Sometime in the ’80s, I went to wash my hands and discovered before me a bottle of liquid soap. I wish I could remember that moment — my first time. Did I push the pump once? Twice? Did I take the plunge three times? Did I stare at the pile of scenty goop sitting in the palm of my hand for a moment or two, or did I just smear it all over my hands and rinse? I wish I had kept a personal journal then so I could give you and me an accurate portrait of what happened. But I can’t. Decades later, describing my first experience with liquid soap is just guesswork.

Traveling down the rabbit hole ever deeper, research reveals that, by a wide margin, folks who were 65 and older in 2016 still preferred bar soap over liquid soap. Despite warnings that bar soap has germs on it, that bar soap slips out of your hands and falls to the ground, that you can slip and break your neck in the shower because of a bar of soap, those 65 and up remained loyal. Like a beloved recipe from childhood, maybe bar soap is comfort soap for some people and makes them nostalgic for simpler times and simpler fragrances.

I tried to find out the history of foaming liquid soaps, but did not find anything to share. Historians have yet to delve into this rich, lathery field of study. But when they do, and if they uncover this essay in the process of their research, know that I only have one word to share when it comes to my first experience with liquid foaming hand soap: thrilling!

Gregory Greenleaf lives in Harpswell and teaches high school English. He ascribes, prescribes and subscribes to many old-fashioned ideas, but especially Charles Dickens’ observation that “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”