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Everybody complains about the cold in Chicago, but the cold isn’t really that bad. My mom’s family comes from Siberia, where it’s so cold that the snow stays on the ground for four months at a time. Here, if you just dress warm and pay your gas bills, you’ll be all right. No, what I hate about Chicago’s weather is what it does to your laundry.

Chicago’s not even cold enough for snow to last more than a few hours. But when the plows and salt spreaders go after it anyway, laundry-wise it’s a nightmare. Just step outside and you get those charcoal-colored, white-rimmed salt-mud globs spattered all over your pants legs. By spring there’s a pile of corduroys in the tough-stains zone at the back of the closet. Outside the snow has turned to rain, but you’re still not safe: there’s still so much gunk on the ground, rain-mud does it too.

This is how I discovered saddle soap.

Now, I’m something of a stain-removal buff, if there is such a thing. I learned years ago that getting stains out means before they go in the wash, and under the sink I have a real maniac’s assortment of naphtha, enzyme products, petroleum distillates, and chlorine- and peroxide-based bleaches.

When you’re removing stains, it’s important to think of the fabric at the micro level. Reimagine the mesh of the fabric as a sort of chain-link fence, except that the wires are thick and fat–and porous–and the spaces between them are narrow. Now somebody throws a bowl full of brownie batter against the fence and leaves it to dry. You find it a week later…

When you picture it like this, you start to “see” the stain as it really is, and this changes your approach to the task. True, a lot of what makes dirt go away is the chemical action of the laundry aids. But first–a little-appreciated fact–the product has to make contact with the dirt. So after you’ve scraped and picked as much of the dirt away as you can, you apply the chemicals, tugging the fabric first one way then the other to allow them to ooze down between the strands, where the particles of uck are lodged. (My technique includes a backward scrape of the fingernail to collect a stain-sized globicle, then rubbing to work it in.) Then you blast enough water through to carry as much of the dissolved uck as possible away, exposing the remainder to the chemical so you can start over.

It’s a damn good system, but it didn’t work on salt-spattered cords. (And no, neither did the dry cleaner’s.) I even experimented with shoe-care products, like the Cavalier brand “De-Salter,” which briefly raised my hopes with its slogan “Removes ugly salt stains.” No dice.

Then came the remarkable curry incident. As anyone from the Indian subcontinent will tell you, curry powder can have an almost infinite variety of ingredients, but what puts those distinctive “dinner on Devon” spots in your clothes is almost always the turmeric. This is a cheap, plentiful spice whose ability to make a large, bright, permanent yellow stain is so great that I’m convinced it’s the true source of “saffron-colored” monks’ robes (real saffron, from the pistils of purple crocuses, being an expensive delicacy).

Consulting my half a shelf of stain-removal guides and cleaning books under “Turmeric (curry stain),” I was told to use a solution of glycerine to loosen the stain. But where to get it? Then I noticed a forgotten tin of saddle soap in with the shoe stuff. It was, in fact, the only substance in the house containing glycerine (the old containers used to list it as an ingredient). And indeed, glycerine dissolves turmeric. I could see it react–the stain had turned a dark red and washed away with hot water.

Hmm: the cords…Why not? I mushed a little smear into one of the black blots, rinsed it out, and…the ick was a bit paler. I did it again. And again and again, one black spot after another, brushing to really work it in and rubbing the fabric together. The spots were more of a pale gray by the time I threw the pants in the wash and completely undetectable without extreme scrutiny under good light–which they got–when they came out of the dryer.

With practice I got really good at it. I saved the pile of once-doomed cords, then branched out. It worked well on dried coffee stains. Rub it in, wait a couple minutes, and then hold under a forceful stream of hot water pouring from the tap; do it a few times. Coffee gone, as a rule. In fact, saddle soap tended to have a higher “hit” rate on mystery stains of the brownish-yellowish genre than just about anything else–and I have quite a lot of stuff under that sink. I was sure it was the glycerine.

Glycerine is an old-time ingredient. A sweet, syrupy substance that is actually a by-product of the soap-making process, it’s used primarily as a softener in cosmetics, food processing, and pharmaceuticals, as well as for making things like antifreeze and high explosives. The flawless Webster’s Second says emphatically: “It is an excellent solvent.” A solvent, generally speaking, is something that can make a substance break apart, loosen, and become liquid. Dissolve, in short.

So I went down to the local health-food emporium, where they still believe in selling old-fashioned, nontoxic ingredients directly to consumers, and I got a little bottle of pure, clear pharmacy-grade glycerine, about two ounces for a buck fifty.

I tried it on my stains and it didn’t do a damn thing.

Saddle soap is made by the Kiwi company of Douglassville, Pennsylvania. (Actually, I should mention that manufacturers are a neglected source of information about the world around us, and they are often delighted to hear from people who do not have complaints.) The people at Kiwi are, it turns out, used to consumers reporting imaginative uses for their products (did you know shoe polish was good for staining wood?), but they weren’t surprised to hear that glycerine alone did zip. Glycerine, they said, is included in saddle soap as a softening agent, not a cleaner.

Glycerine is a very good solvent, said chemist Charles Bunczk, Kiwi’s research and development manager. And when applied to the curry stains, for example, “it dissolves the spices clinging to the surface of the fibers, but it doesn’t have that lifting and breaking of the bond,” and it can’t “encapsulate that which you are lifting away.” But glycerine is also highly water-soluble, so under the tap it will wash off, leaving the turmeric pretty much where it was, only liquefied enough to ooze deeper. “You’ve now successfully dyed the fabric.”

The actual basis of saddle soap, Bunczk said, is tallow, or animal fat (“of the ox and sheep kind,” as Webster’s notes). Tallow soap (made by breaking down the fat with an alkali) is also an ancient discovery, and still is used extensively. A lot of the natural soap bars, like Ivory, are tallow soap with other things thrown in. Natural soaps are very good cleaners, Bunczk said, and when you put saddle soap on a stain, the tallow encapsulates the soils so you can wash them away.

But an excellent solvent is less than zero as a cleaner unless you also have something to see that the dissolved stuff departs: the detergent. Technically all soaps are detergents, which just means the chemical that unsticks the dirt and holds it in suspension so it can be removed. But the term is often used to mean the synthetic synthetic laundry cleaners, which became popular in the 1950s because of their “miracle properties,” like working in cold water, not leaving scum, and getting out “tough” stains. They’ve been adding miracle properties steadily since then, and some of the things detergents can do now are post-space-age. For example, some of them contain “brighteners,” which aren’t even cleaners at all, but microscopic bits of something that absorb UV radiation and re-emit it as a bluish light–so they just make your stuff look cleaner, because it reflects more light than other people’s clothes.

But the high-tech superdetergents were just too powerful to get the black spots out of my cords. “A very, very efficient detergent,” explained Bunczk, “would ‘wet’ real well”–which means break up the surface tension of water to help it penetrate better–“and penetrate real well. This would spread the dirt, and it would restain deep into the cross-section of the fabric.” That is, down inside the fat porous wires of the chain-link fence. That deep penetrating action that can work the dirt farther and farther into the fibers.

But for a thick piece of leather, “what you don’t want is a very efficient detergent,” he said, because it would remove the natural oils, making it brittle and wrecked. Fortunately, leather is “less absorbent and adsorbent” to soils than fabric, so saddle soap “is really only meant to be a surface cleaner.”

But that still left one puzzlement. After all, even though detergents have that deep penetrating action they seem to work all right on a lot of stains. Why was the salt-mud so resistant? Soap chemist Bunczk thought it had to do with the “composition of the soils.”

Most people think of dirt as having “a simple composition,” he said. But actually it’s very complex: “Even motor oil has eight or nine components in there–when it’s clean, and dirty motor oil…” The mere thought inspired philosophical reflection: “The soils that we encounter were once useful ingredients. It’s simply matter out of place.”

And in Chicago, he noted, there’s a lot of “once-useful” things in the mud: “It’s not pure clay. It’s got soot from furnaces, motor oil from exhaust, particulate dirt, diesel oil, unburnt gasoline, emissions coming out of plants….And then you do have your true dirt.”

Yes, everybody complains about the cold in Chicago. What I really hate is the mud.