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The Guelph Soap Company: Over A Hundred Years Of Production

In early Guelph, as with most pioneer communities, soap tended to be made at home. Lye and fat provided the basis for many cleaning products. Even with the addition of various herbs such as lavender or chamomile, the products were rough on the skin. Using bouncing bet (Saponaria officinalis) could also create a sweet-smelling and effective soap.

However, for many women who were brought up to believe a lady’s hands should be soft, home made soap was not desirable. Bought soap – particularly imported French soaps, were the answer. For those who could afford it, Guelph stores carried basic and fancy soaps. With the increased growth of the town, such products became more affordable. With more goods available and an increasingly urban society, store-bought soaps (among other items) became increasingly common. The entire supply chain was shortened even further when a Guelph manufactory began to produce soap for local use.

The Guelph Soap Company has a long history in Guelph. It began under the ownership of William McPherson, Mr. Adam Linton (1848-?) and William Nicholson in 1883 out of premises on Waterloo (now Fountain) Street. The building was a three-story structure. After a brief closure in 1886, the company regrouped in 1887 under Linton and his junior partner William Nicholson, and quickly established a niche market through the production of several lines of soaps. These included:

  •  Silver Star
  • Royal City
  •  Peerless
  •  Superior
  • Genuine Electric

These products were both practical and attractive. In the Herald 1895 Industrial Edition, The “Guelph Soap Works” was praised for avoiding the “degeneration of adulteration” and providing Western Ontario with “soaps in which no deleterious or harmful ingredients are allowed to enter.”

In the beginning, the company had three hands. This was true for both 1883 and 1893. This number did not increase substantially over the early years, although a peak of some 16 employees was reached in the 20th century.

Nicholson left Adam Linton remained in charge of the company until the Walker brothers took over. Linton was about 54 at the time and a widower. He continued to list his occupation as a “soap maker” as late as 1917.

The Walkers

In around 1903, Linton sold his company to the Walker Brothers: Edward J. C Walker (1879 -?), John C. Walker (1851-?), CH Walker and ST Walker. Of these four men, the major participants in management were John and Edward. The former was also president of another small Guelph company – the Electric Boiler Compound Company; the latter was this company’s secretary.

The company remained in its premises at 16-20 Waterloo Street and the basic product line remained the same. A booklet from 1908 listed the company produced several “special brands.” These included Halifax Electric and Royal City Bar. They also manufactured laundry chips and scouring soap. However, the company’s most popular soap of the time, one that “sold all over Canada” was Wonderful Soap.

The Wonderful Soap Company

During the early 1930s, the company fell into receivership. It was bought by the Harris Family. They changed the name to the “Wonderful Soap Company.” This was in honour of the company’s best-selling product of the time. Unfortunately, the Harris family could not make a go of it. The Depression did not make it easy for any company to survive. Once again, the Guelph Soap Company was closed and sold.

Corporate Soap

The Guelph Soap Company passed out of family ownership in 1947. Swift Premium Ltd purchased it. They were more interested in chemical composition than making traditional soap using older methods. They proceeded to move Guelph Soap into the 2oth century utilizing methods that were to create problems concerning effluents entering the sewer system.

The Swift Corporation, like the Harris family, gave Guelph Soap a new name – Swift Chemical Specialities.  Financial issues continued to plague the company, but it soldiered on through the tough 1960s, through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Finally, it had reached a point where its financial woes combined with new requirements for environmental protection to produce an economic wall it could not climb over or breakthrough. Staff was at an all-time low of 15.

Martin Bosch and the Move to Elora

By 1983, the company was once again up for sale. This time, the purchaser was Martin Bosch, a former University of Guelph professor and owner of Tricorp – a company he had purchased in 1979. The soap company once again found itself under new management with a new name. It became Tricorp Chemical Specialties.

Bosch decided to address the effluent issue by applying his skill as a science professor who had majored in chemistry. He reduced the staff from the existing 15 to 11 to improve its efficiency while cutting costs. He also decided to replace the high-priced suppliers with more affordable ones.

Yet, what actually saved the Guelph Soap Company from going under was Bosch’s realization that he had to find a niche market – one in which the company could succeed. Rather than compete with larger, more modern companies, this version of the Guelph Soap Company decided to produce and package “House Brands” for various retailers. By working with such large companies to produce “private labels” Bosch was able to do more than survive. He could now afford to increase the staff to around 25.

Yet, after a time, the Guelph factory proved insufficient to fulfill its ever-increasing demands. The new owner decided to relocate the company to Elora ending its 100 years in Guelph. In 2014, the larger corporation became Universal Soap Inc. However, in homage to its roots, the Guelph Soap Company lives on within the larger corporation producing Guelph Soap. Guelph Soap uses sustainable ingredients. The company endeavours in all its wares to reduce its environmental footprint. It also does not test its products on animals.

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