Stanley Elkin’s “Pieces of Soap”
In 1990 novelist Stanley Elkin published an essay about his “accumulation” of travel soaps. Published in Art & Antiques magazine, the essay took a humorous look at a serious compulsion he had to take prepackaged soaps from airplanes, trains, hotels, and other places that provided them for free. Elkin estimated having between 5,000 and 6,000 prepackaged soaps at the time, storing them in various baskets and other containers around the house, not sorted or inventoried in any way.
Elkin traced the compulsion to his father’s practical use of these kinds of soaps as a traveling salesman. Still, Elkin did not consider himself a collector or connoisseur and did not start using any of them until he felt compelled to due to the sheer number of them. “Pieces of Soap” became the title essay in his 1992 volume of nonfiction work.
Elkin was a longtime Washington University professor who died in 1995. His widow Joan continued to add his papers to the Modern Literature Collection over the years. In 2022, following Joan’s death, their daughter Molly donated a basket of his soaps and the remainder of his papers.