I had a nice surprise on my way home from work last Monday afternoon: outside Sweny’s, the chemist in which Leopold Bloom buys a bar of lemon soap in Ulysses, a small crowd was gathered. It included a James Joyce lookalike, who I initially presumed to be an actor there for the festivities, but who turned out to be Joyce’s grand-nephew Jurek Delimata. He and a volunteer, Liz O’Carroll, were sitting outside of the chemist’s drinking, smoking, and entertaining the gathered group of tourists and Joyce aficionados.
I eventually worked my way into the crowded little chemist’s, to buy my own bar of lemon soap. After a little chat with the volunteers working there, I was shown a rather beautiful old trade book from 1941. It featured lots of information generally useful to chemists, but was also riddled with beautiful ads for items to sell—from children’s vitamins to hair products. The chance to hold and examine the beautiful old advertisements and typography was a rare privilege, and, flicking through the book, I found myself smiling a lot.
I noticed quite a lot of (I think) Futura—not exactly a new typeface in those days (it was invented in 1927), but presumably still futuristic-looking. And an ad for a(nother) bar of soap had a nice block of justified text exactly the size and shape of the bar in the picture.
Sweny’s is a marvellous institution. Part artefact of fiction, part relic of old Dublin, and part museum, it exists as a vestige of our literary heritage, and of our social history. It’s also in financial trouble. If you live in Dublin, consider popping in for one of their regular Joyce readings, and while you’re there, pick up a bar of lemon soap, or just make a donation. They will certainly appreciate it, and it will help keep a part of Dublin’s literary history alive.