A peek into our collections, one object at a time


January 4, 2011
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“Soapman,” c. 1800s
Dave Hunt, Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History

“Soapman,” c. 1800s

“Soapman” lived in Philadelphia and was buried there around 1800. The body was discovered in 1875 during the digging of a train depot foundation. This unusual preservation occurred because water seeped into the casket and brought alkaline soil with it, turning the fats in his body to soap through a type of hydrolysis known as saponification. Soapman is kept in the National Museum of Natural History’s Dry Environment room, where Smithsonian scientists can research how the body is preserved through chemical changes.

This object is one of 137 million artifacts, works of art and specimens in the Smithsonian’s collection. It is not on public display.