Lathering up with bush soap

by Julia Robinson

In a recent ‘Words from our Word Box’ update, we included the term bush soap, and explained it as: ‘The leaves of any of several Australian plants that may be used as a soap substitute. When rubbed vigorously with water, the leaves produce a soap-like lather, thanks to the chemical compounds (saponins) they contain.’ We noted that the earliest evidence in print for bush soap occurs in the early 1990s.

Do-it-yourself soap

Do-it-yourself soap-making

However this is only one of three senses of bush soap that exist in Australian English. The earliest kind of bush soap, dating from the 1880s, was quite a different thing: do-it-yourself soap made of necessity by people who lived in remote areas with little or no access to towns, or by those who could not afford to buy commercially manufactured soap. In this sense of bush soap the word bush has the Australian meaning ‘improvised’, ‘simple’, or ‘rough and ready’, as evidenced in compounds such as bush bass ‘a single-stringed instrument made from a tea chest’, and bush furniture ‘furniture made from improvised materials’. Recipes for bush soap proliferate in nineteenth-century newspapers:

A good bush soap may be made by boiling seven pounds of washing soda and the same quantity of lime in five gallons of water for half-an-hour; when cold pour off the clear water; add to the residue six pounds of fat and rather more than a pound of resin, and boil for four hours. As soon as it acquires the right consistency of soap pour the mass into some receptacle, and cut into bars when cool. ( Sydney Freeman’s Journal, 6 November 1880)

There is some evidence for the DIY bush soap after the 1920s, but  in recent decadesbush soap another, very different, kind of bush soap has become available. This is a luxury item, a toilet soap that includes ingredients derived from plants native to the Australian bush, such as eucalypt, tea-tree, native mint, and lemon myrtle. The element bush in this case refers to the natural vegetation of the Australian landscape.  The luxurious bush soap dates from the late twentieth century, coinciding with the growing interest in making use of Australian native plants in cooking, cosmetics, and toiletries.

Evidence for yet another sense of bush soap dates from early this century. It is a term for a type of distinctively Australian TV series that has a bush (that is, a rural) setting.  (Soap, of course, is a common abbreviation of soap opera ‘a drama serial with domestic themes’, and derives from the fact that the original sponsors in the US were soap manufacturers.)

McLeod's Daughters

McLeod’s Daughters

Without doubt the most popular of  the bush soaps on Australian television was ‘McLeod’s Daughters’, which went to air in 2001. A critic noted at the time: ‘This show offers a less romanticised view of country life than we sometimes get, and if you’re in the mood for a bush soap this could suit.’ (Canberra Times, 22 October 2001) It ran for eight seasons and was voted Australia’s favourite drama series in 2004 and 2005. Later in its run the audience had dwindled and critics were harsher: ‘One suspects that the makers of this cheesy but enduring Mills-and-Boon-goes-bush soap are reaching into their kitbag of novelty story ideas for a heart-rending season finale.’ (Melbourne Age, 6 September 2007)


3 thoughts on “Lathering up with bush soap

  1. Interesting post. Thanks! And I like the inclusion of the last sense of ‘bush soap’. I hadn’t thought of that one!

    Just fyi, I did a study of bush medicine use among Kriol speakers in Ngukurr, NT and most or all of them preferred term ‘souptri’ (i.e. ‘soap tree’) rather than ‘bush soap’ (in reference to your ‘sense 1’ as described above). In the traditional language of Marra which I’ve also studied, it’s called dugul, dugurlarlan and/or murdirdi and refers a few related species of trees in the Acacia genus. A comment on its contemporary use/knowledge in my current thesis draft is that:

    “This type of medicine is rarely if ever used in contemporary Ngukurr. Given that its medicinal properties are quite generic, it appears as though its use has been supplanted by commercial soap products. Knowledge of souptri “soap tree” does persist however, including among some young people, attributable to the novelty of being able to quickly create a recognisably soap-like product from a commonly occuring tree.”

    • Thanks for the comment, and the info on ‘souptri’. The Australian National Dictionary records ‘soap tree’ from 1923, and defines it as Alphitonia excelsa, or red ash, whose leaves can be used as a soap substitute. Perhaps we need to cast our net more widely.

  2. I have heard it used in Tennant Creek for kalkarti ‘soap bush’, wattle with broad sickle-shaped leaves. ‘Acacia cowleana’ sometimes ‘A. holoserica’. And described also in a recipe at the Nyinkkanyunyu Cultural Centre as “This is bush rinso. You break the little green bits that are like beans, and you put it in cold water and you rub your hands with it. Your hands get soapy. “

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