In a previous ‘Back to basics’ post, I wrote about the eco-virtues of Dr. Bronner’s Classic Liquid Soap, the versatile castile (vegetable-based instead of animal fat or synthetics-based) soap in the funny-looking bottle. In that post, I also profiled Dr. Bronner, who, as it turns out, was a Timothy Leary-meets-Mrs. Meyers type of character.

Today, I’m highlighting another famously versatile castile soap (this time in bar form), Kirk’s Original Coco Hardwater Castile Soap. I chose Kirk’s not only because of its old school status (production started in 1839) and because it’s a staple in many eco-conscious homes but because I wanted to find out a bit more about the company and if there was a “Kirk” behind the product. That said, I knew if there was indeed an actual Kirk he wouldn’t be as um, colorful, as Dr. Emil Bronner. In this case, the packaging differences between the two products really says a lot …

Well, there was a Kirk, James S. Kirk to be exact, and here’s what the Encyclopedia of Chicago has to say about him:

James S. Kirk, a native of Scotland who grew up in Montreal, moved his soap-manufacturing business from Utica, New York, to Chicago in 1859. In 1867, he set up a large new plant on North Water Street. In 1870, this facility employed about 30 men and 20 children and made nearly $600,000 worth of soap during the year. By 1880, the North Water Street plant was one of world's largest soap factories, with machinery driven by steam engines, a workforce of 250, and an annual output worth over $2 million. By the turn of the century, when there were close 600 workers at Kirk's factory, it made about 100 million pounds of soap per year. In 1929, the North Water Street plant was demolished, and the remnants of the company were sold to Procter & Gamble of Cincinnati.
Okay, so it looks like there’s no planetarium worshipping or insane asylum escaping in Mr. Kirk’s bio. Oh well … not every natural soap maker can boast a wild background like Dr. Bronner.

Despite the non-tantalizing history of biodegradable, coconut oil-based Kirk’s castile bar soap, it remains a trusted natural product with a variety of household uses. Here’s a few of them: 

• Ingredient in homemade laundry detergent

• Acne remedy

• Shampoo

• Body soap

• Vegetable wash

• Dish detergent 

Do you use Kirk's Original Coco Castile Soap or any of the other products in the Kirk's family? Are there any uses in addition to the ones listed above that work well for you?

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) reports on design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.