Episode 1: From a tallow smelter to a soap maker

1886. In their little house in Nantes, they had just finished eating dinner. On the doorstep, Alexis Biette shook the well-dressed man’s hand: a white collar above his black topcoat, a top hat, leather briefcase and an umbrella. The days were still chilly at the end of March and could easily take a turn for the worse.

“Goodbye my friend! Have a safe trip!” Alexis said to him.

The man waved to him and left in the dark night. Alexis carefully closed the door and turned to Marie, his wife, who was looking at him, one hand lightly touching her stomach, you could guess it was just beginning to grow. He felt lucky to share his life with his wife whom he totally trusted. He tenderly said a few words to her and went into the living room, as usual. But on that evening, he had a slight smile on his face, something that didn’t often happen.

Marie didn’t say anything, but she was overjoyed to see her husband smiling. That was quite rare: ever since they’d acquired the tallow factory, four years ago, business had been slow. The market was in a slump: since people had begun using gas lights, no one wanted candles anymore, that was only logical. As Alexis’s English friend kept on saying: you have to live in today’s world and be in line with the market. In England people use tallow to make soap. But not just any soap! In France people use the same soap to wash both their bodies and clothing, whereas in England no one would ever think of washing their face and then their petticoats with the same bar of soap.

Sitting in his armchair, relaxed by the intoxicating odor of tobacco, Alexis shared Marie’s line of thoughts. This was what he needed to get his business going again, he needed to diversify. And he had everything within reach: no need use olive oil from the south of France that doesn’t change color and leaves a specific odor, tallow will do the job just as well and you can color it and give it whatever fragrance you want. The
only things he still needed were the machines. When he thought about that, Alexis frowned. As a self-made-man, he had to borrow and was still paying back his first loans. But he was sure that he’d find the words to convince his bankers. His project had a future and he was sure of it. Now was the time to get the ball rolling.

The next morning, he walked with a bouncy step to his office in the center of Nantes. When he came in, everyone turned around and he waved to them all. When they were all silent, he declared with self-assurance and optimism, carefully pronouncing each word: “My dear colleagues, today is a grand day for our company. Today we are going to found the first Soap Works in the West.”