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Anna Schwartz
September 20, 2021

George Bradford Brainerd, [The soap fat man], 1870s, glass plate negative. George Bradford Brainerd photograph collection, BRAI_0234. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History. 

Soap making during the 1800s was dirty business. It required two key ingredients: rendered animal fat and lye, a caustic substance traditionally made from wood ashes. Before industrialization, many Brooklynites made their own soap using accumulated cooking fat and grease from the home. The final product, known as soft soap, was stored in barrels and used for cleaning and washing as needed. By the late-1800s, soap manufacturing in Brooklyn was booming. Companies such as Kirkman & Sons, located at the corner of Bridge and Water Street in DUMBO, Brooklyn, offered a range of soap products, from perfumed bars to soap powder, to a growing consumer base. To support soap production, workers, sometimes called “soap fat men,” collected fat waste from local residents, hotels, and butchers across the borough and beyond. 

This week’s image depicts one such local soap fat collector. Taken by amateur photographer George Bradford Brainerd in the 1870s, we see a man--his face obscured by his arm--carrying a large tin pail on his back. The work, often conducted by Irish immigrants, would have been grueling and unpleasant. Brainerd likely took this picture while working as the Deputy Water Purveyor to the City of Brooklyn. To see more images from the George Bradford Brainerd photograph collection, click here.

Interested in seeing more photos from CBH’s collections? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images, or the digital collections portal at Brooklyn Public Library. We look forward to inviting you to CBH in the future to research in our entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections. In the meantime, please visit our resources page to search our collections. Questions? Our reference staff is available to help with your research! You can reach us at [email protected]

Comments / 2 comments

Amazing quality and great depth. So glad this photo survived!
September 21, 2021, 7:55 pm  
I never ever thought soap was made with animal fat!
September 23, 2021, 5:39 pm  

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