Raising the Bar with Bradford Soap Works

One of the largest bar soap manufacturers in the United States, Bradford has quietly done business in Rhode Island for 142 years.

Photography by Michael Cevoli.

From start to finish, soap making is a full-throttle sensory experience.

The glassed-in chemistry suite, where new soaps are formulated, smells of peppermint. It is the quietest place in 200,000 square feet.

The air by the kettles, where fat, acid and steam gurgle in the saponification process, hangs thick. It smells sterile — a little metallic.

And the production floor, where fresh soaps are packed for shipment, is a cacophony of fragrance and sound. On one line, where a machine boxes soap made for children, the air smells tangy, like watermelon gum. On another line, where artisanal soaps are packed by hand, it smells of oatmeal. Machines clang and chug and workers in hairnets make small talk.

It’s hard to imagine that such a clamorous place — which pumps out 300 million bars of soap a year — could go unnoticed by so many Rhode Islanders.

The paradox is not lost on John Howland.

“We have families who have worked here for three, four generations,” Howland says. “It’s a fascinating story that’s happening in Rhode Island that people aren’t aware of.”

In the 1960s, Howland’s late father bought a majority share of the company. Howland and his immediate family now own Bradford in its entirety, so this collective blind-sightedness might feel like a slight to his family business.

Bradford Soap was founded in 1876 by James Rogers and William Murgatroyd, who named it after their hometown in England. Bradford started out making soap flakes used to scour wool, then pivoted a couple of times to what it is today: a bar soap behemoth. More than 200 Rhode Islanders work here in three shifts over five days, producing bar soaps for big-name corporations that include Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson and Johnson, Unilever, L’Oreal and Amway. Sixty more employees work in a Bradford-owned plant in Indiana.

And it’s pivoting again. In 2018, Bradford is expanding from bar soap into the broader market of personal cleansing. Think: bath bombs, cleansing whip and moisturizer sticks.

This is important: Bradford doesn’t just manufacture for big-name corporations. Its research and development team thinks up new concepts; its chemists formulate recipes; its clients reap the benefits.

“We’re not building the Bradford brand,” says Stuart R. Benton, who was named Bradford’s CEO and president in 2016. “You can’t find a Bradford soap bar out there.”

But go to your local drugstore. Pick up a bar of Dove or Dr. Bronner’s or Tom’s of Maine or Aveeno. Flip it over. Where was it made?