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British Industrial History

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Isdale and McCullum

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Soap powder.

From ‘Captains of Industry’ by William S. Murphy. Published 1901.

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. . . . and tallow in a heated pan, but soap may or may not result front the combination, and the soap, if produced, would certainly be dearer and less suitable than the product of the professional soapmaker. For the relations between caustic soda and fat are subtle and vary indefinitely. A given strength of soda will combine with a given fat at a certain temperature, but the resulting soap may be useless for practical purposes. The unlucky experimenter varies the relations of his chemicals and finds that they will not combine. The tricks of those volatile elements are infinite, and it seems wonderful that we can buy in any grocer's shop soap of uniform quality and character year in year out. The secret is to be found in the chemical laboratory of the soap factory, and the patient, practical experiment of the soap boiler.

The soap factory of Messrs. Isdale S M'Callum, Paisley, exhibits the soapmaking process in a clear light. Situated in Rowan Street, near the outskirts of the town, it extends over 21 acres of ground, the two-storey red brick buildings making a pleasing picture. In front are the offices and counting-house and the private room of the partners. Behind are the works. The ground floor is divided into three departments; the place where the raw material is first prepared, or lye department; the soap powder department; and the packing and despatch department.

Soapmaking begins with the preparation of the soda lyes. At the far end of the lye department stands a large vat or tank. Into this the soda ash and lime shells are laid, and water poured over them. When fully matured, the resultant liquor is pumped into an adjoining vat. Meanwhile the fat is also being prepared. Say, for example, it is a tallow soap we are seeing manufactured. The barrel of tallow is laid over the vat, a steam pipe is passed through the bung-hole, and the melted tallow runs into the vat.

On the second floor are the soap-boiling pans, mighty tanks supported on iron pillars from beneath, and capable of holding tons of boiling soap. Into these the soda lye and melted tallow are pumped from the vats below. All round and across the soap-boiling pans are coils of steam-pipes, which can be raised to very high temperatures by means of super-heated steam. The soap-maker's art is to proportion the strength of lye to the quality of fat and the heat of his boiling pan in such degrees as will facilitate the act of saponification or unity of all the ingredients. For it is in the soap-boiling pan that colour and variation of quality is given to the soap by means of chemicals added at different stages of the boiling.

There lies the mystery of the soapmaker's art. Any chemist by analysis can discover all the ingredients of every soap; but it is not so easy to determine at what particular stage each element has been added, and therein may hide the special virtue of the composition. The soap-boiling-pan is not unlike the witches' cauldron in mystery and potency, with the important difference that the latter produced bane and woe, while the former brings forth beneficial soap. Four to six days are required to complete the boiling process. First there is the charging of the pan — a process of successive boilings of soda, soap, and other ingredients, followed by precipitation of the spent lyes, till the pan is filled; then the addition of common salt to produce granulation of the soap and separation from the lye; and last, the final boiling with a weak lye. Having been fully boiled, the soap is allowed to cool, and after lying two days or so the upper layer is run off into iron frames holding 11 cwt. each, there to cool and harden. The lower layer, called "nigger," is also run off into drying frames, and the spent lye remaining sent into the lye vat below. When the soap has hardened the frames are taken off and the soap is cut into bars.

No satisfactory mechanical device has yet been invented for dealing with the large blocks, but the Messrs. Isdale & M`Callum have devised a cutter which reduces blocks cut to the required size into tablets at the rate of over 1000 an hour. The process which has been described is that adapted for making household soaps; but there are other soaps made here by processes more or less elaborate; these are the manufacturers' soaps. The soaps used by woollen and textile manufacturers are generally composed of potash and vegetable fat. A great variety of ingredients are now used by the soapmaker — sperm oil, cotton seed oil, palm oil, linseed oil, with various saponifiers.

The Paisley firm seems to be alive both to the possibilities of its speciality and the demands of the market. In the soap-boiling room a large number of pans are ranged round, each containing many tons of soap, some of yellow, some of brown, and others of manufacturers' soap, the men breaking up the bubbling masses that threaten to boil over.

On the floor below the work of drying and packing the soap powders goes on, boys and men deftly covering and labelling the pungent-smelling article. Adjoining are the general packing and despatch rooms, in which are piled bar soaps, cake soaps, etc., in high stacks, which decrease or increase as the packers take away or the soapmakers bring up the finished products.

Beyond the soap-boiling department stands a newer building; this is where the glycerine recovery evaporating plant operates. Two high towers, with conical tops, looking like a compound high-speed engine and boiler combined, and underneath large square vats; these are the evaporators, into which the spent lyes are put. By a process of evaporation the glycerine salt and other chemicals used in the soapmaking process, or resulting therefrom, are recovered. Adjoining is the chemical laboratory, a snug and well-equipped little place, and isolated sufficiently for a student's requirements. All over the works appear to be well equipped and up-to-date, employing a numerous staff even at the slackest season.

The chiefs and founders of the firm are Mr. Ralph Isdale and Mr. John M. M`Callum. Born at Leith and educated there, Mr. lsdale went to Paisley when a lad about twenty years of age, and there entered the employment of the oldest soap and candle-making business in Scotland, Messrs. Wm. Sim & Co. The young man must have applied himself thoroughly to practical soapmaking, for he became in a few years manager to Mr. W. M’Kean, St. Mirren Soap Works; next he was given the management of Messrs. Jamieson & Son's soap works; and finally he obtained the same position with Messrs. Robin & Houston, soap manufacturers, Paisley. It was in the last-mentioned place Mr. Isdale became associated with the gentleman who was to be his partner for many years.

Mr. John M. M`Callum was born in Paisley, and is rather proud of the fact. After leaving school he continued his studies in chemistry and kindred technical subjects at Allan Glen's School, Glasgow, then the best school of its kind in Scotland. While yet a young man he entered the employment of Messrs. Robin & Houston as clerk and traveller, where he met and learned to esteem Mr. Isdale.

About the beginning of 1869 the two agreed to start as partners in the soapmaking business. They began humbly enough in New Sneddon, but their business was founded on right lines-a practical manager in the works and a good commercial man in the counting-house and dealing with customers, each highly esteeming the other.

Success was almost inevitable. As their business grew, Messrs. Isdale & M`Callum felt the old Premises too crowded, and, extension on that site being difficult, they decided (in 1877) to build new works for themselves. At the end of Rowan Street was a dye-work which had just then been vacated. Messrs. Isdale & M`Callum bought it up, feued more ground, and built up their works, adding to them year by year as seemed necessary. Mr. Isdale is of the quiet order of men who love to do good by stealth, and is much regarded for his steady practical sense.

His partner, Mr. John M. M`Callum, being drawn by business duty more out into the world, has taken an active and leading part in the public and religious life of his native town. Educational and religious interests chiefly concern him, although he is an ardent partisan on the Liberal side of politics. For many years he was president of Paisley Young Men's Christian Association, a director of the Poor Association for twenty-two years, a member of Paisley Philosophical Society for twenty-five years, and a director of Paisley Museum and Library. After being approached several times he at last consented to stand for Paisley Town Council, and was elected. Mr. M`Callum is a magistrate of his native burgh and Justice of the Price for the County of Renfrew. He has been noted both in municipal and political affairs as an open-minded, conciliatory leader, whose services in keeping the older school of Progressives and the younger Radicals in touch with each other have been widely recognised. While ready to sympathise with lofty ideals he has a practical insight that readily perceives the next step possible.

Associated with Messrs. Ralph Isdale and John M. M’Callum in the partnership are Mr. James Isdale, son of Mr. Isdale, and Mr. John M'Callum, M.A., nephew of Mr. M’Callum. Both these young men have been diligent students, and hold the highest certificates as chemists. They have gone through every grade of the soapmaker's trade, and therefore are fully equipped both in practical experience and theoretical knowledge to take part in the management of the business,

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