Entertaining Rule No. 15: Provide Liquid Soap

New rules for guests and hosts.
Sept. 24 2013 1:16 PM

Rule No. 15: Provide Liquid Soap

Provide Liquid Soap
"But isn't the cleanliness of a bar of soap what makes me clean?"

Photo by George Marks/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

My epic struggle with the question of soap and guests began over a decade ago when I found myself, unrelatedly, grappling with the previously explored washcloth conundrum. Everywhere I stayed, my hosts graciously laid out a bath sheet, a hand towel, and a washcloth. As a polite houseguest I routinely toweled off with the bath sheet, dried my hands with the hand towel, and then—wracked with guilt and confusion on the day of my departure—I would strip my bed, tidy my room, and rinse and fold the unused washcloth. Why this last unnecessary ritual? Because I wanted to signal that I had enjoyed and appreciated the washcloth, even though, as a matter of empirical fact, nobody has actually used a washcloth since 1954.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

One time, I got drunk and confessed to my hostess that I would be rising, soaking, and folding her unused washcloth, just so she knew. She was horrified. “Well then what are you doing with the soap?!” she hissed.

“The soap?” I replied, slurrily.

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“Yes! The soap! The washcloth is for the soap! You haven’t been rubbing the guest soap directly onto your body … have you?”

Since it was now manifestly clear that I would never be invited to return, I decided to press the issue. Mostly because this conversation was opening up an existential question the likes of which I had never encountered. “But I thought soap was clean?” I confessed. “I thought its cleanness made me clean.” It had never crossed my mind that my dirt power was greater than the soap’s clean power, or that the purpose of the guest washcloth was to mediate between my dirtiness and the soap’s cleanliness. Suddenly it occurred to me that if I wanted to be perfectly hygienic as a hostess, I had a choice to make: I would either need to provide washcloths (no.); boil my guest soaps in hot water between each visitor; or provide a second, clean soap with which guests could wash after they had washed with the dirty one.

Reader, I was indeed never invited back to the House of Washcloths, but I learned a valuable lesson. Guests may become clean by being rubbed vigorously with a piece of soap, but soap becomes dirty by being rubbed vigorously with a piece of guest. As a hostess, this forced me into a lateral move toward the only solution: liquid soaps. For this great invention, all manner of application implements may be used, but bare hands are superior—both for the user and for the laundry. Washcloths and cross-contamination, all thwarted with a single squirt. 

For a while, I hoarded all the little bottles of soap I collected on hotel jaunts, laying them out in a cunning little basket in the guest bathroom so that my visitors would never be forced to touch even packaging sullied by a prior guest. But this tactic can become problematic if guest demand outpaces the supply of bottles. Also, for a brief period this summer, I decided that it was far more elegant to have a spare guest bathroom uncluttered by dozens of little half-used bottles. So, before the next guest arrived, I tossed all the containers into the guest bathroom trash bin and considered the matter settled. 

But I had made a grave mistake. After my most recent visitor departed I found in the guest shower an empty bottle of Suave blue dinosaur-flavored kids’ bodywash-shampoo-conditioner-shaving lotion. The poor traveler had doubtless scavenged it from the garbage can to squeeze the last precious drops of cartoonish liquid from its crushed-up innards in order to feel slightly cleaner than he would have felt if I had given him, say, a small box of harmonicas in which to bathe. As a hostess I was mortified. I had failed to replace the little bottles of liquid soap with a single, substantial, irritant-free grown-up one, which is, of course, what a host should always do. Learn from my struggle: Provide liquid soap and never be foiled—or soiled—in the guest toiletry department again.