Monday, January 25, 2016

Soap Sculpture in Elmira: How You Can Be a Part of Its History!

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

The Chemung County Historical Society is hosting a soap carving contest to celebrate our new exhibit, Clean. It’s free and open to all ages and you can find out how to participate here:

But, why soap carving, you might be thinking?  It’s a pretty obscure art form to us now, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was wildly popular here and across the country.  It really took off when Proctor and Gamble promoted national soap carving contests in an attempt to sell more of their product, Ivory soap.  Soap carving was touted as an activity that was accessible for people of all ages and abilities.  It was supposed to provide a wholesome outlet for children’s energy and also serve as a low-cost medium for amateur adult artists.
If our amateur artist staff at the museum can do it, so can you.
Beginning in the mid-1920s, the Arnot Art Museum periodically displayed soap sculptures, and the popularity of such exhibits led people to call for local contests.  In 1926, the Elmira Community Service provided 100 free instructional booklets to children interested in learning soap carving.  In 1945, the Arnot Art Museum displayed sculptures created by 7th and 8th grade students at Elmira’s George Washington School.  The entries were then to be entered in the National Soap Sculpture Contest in New York City.  
William Lavris and Marjorie Kolb inspect entries in the 1945 Arnot Art Museum display.
Even local businesses got in on the craze: this advertisement from The Junior Shop in 1929 tells of a soap display and contest hosted at boys’ clothing store.

So now, I encourage you to help us revive this once popular art form.  You don’t need to have any artistic background or special ability.  It can be done with a basic kitchen butter knife or you can come to the museum and use our special carving tools during our open carving workshop hours (see here for those times:  Your work will be on display at the museum and you could even win a prize.  And it’s free.  Give it a try and you might just uncover a secret talent you never knew you had!


  1. Sounds like some good clean FUN!
    -Finger Lakes Soap Co.
    Van Etten, NY

    1. Thanks! We hope you can participate. Soap distribution officially begins tomorrow!