A Short History Of Soap

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Jun 18, 2009
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Here's an article I first wrote up a couple of years ago...it's been published a few times.

©David Lambert

Soap is a wonderful thing. Most folks are so used to simply choosing a brand from the supermarket shelf, they never think about what’s in it or how it’s made – or whether it’s even good for them. Nevertheless, because we use it every day on our bodies, it’s worth knowing a little bit about how soap is made and where it comes from. When you think about it, the common act of washing our hands has revolutionized history. Our world would not exist, if mankind had not at some point begun to bathe.

When asked, most folks cannot define the word soap. It's something we take for granted. But what is it?

Soap is made from vegetable or animal fats and oils, mixed with a caustic alkali such as sodium hydroxide (lye) or potassium hydroxide (potash), which initiates a chemical reaction called saponification. The traditional method of producing potash was to steep wood ashes in water.

Soap does not occur naturally, but the process of creating it is so simple that its discovery probably occurred long before the first villages and towns came into being. There is a legend, repeated endlessly in soapmaking books and websites, which tells of a certain hill in Rome called Mount Sapo. There was supposedly a temple on the top of this hill where animals were sacrificed in the fire, and the fats and ashes ran downhill into a river. Women doing their laundry discovered that their clothes became cleaner when they washed them at the foot of Mt. Sapo. It’s an attractive story, but it probably never happened. No one knows anything about a hill called Mt. Sapo, by a river or anywhere else. Something like this may have occurred at some distant place and time, but even so it certainly does not mark the first discovery of soap.

Soap was probably first discovered when fire pits, used season after season by bands of hunters, were rained on. The animal fats from many kills would have dripped down into the ashes, and the rains would have soaked the ashes to create a crude form of lye. Yes, the cave men probably knew how to make and use soap! Soap has been found in excavations at ancient Babylon, dating from 2800 BC. An ancient medical papyrus from Egypt describes the healing properties of vegetable oils mixed with alkali salts.

Interestingly, the idea of using soap for personal hygiene and cleansing seems to have come along fairly late. It was used mainly for washing wool and cleaning laundry long before anyone thought of using it to clean themselves. Ashes and animal fat were (and still are) smeared on the body by primitive peoples to create a startling or distinctive appearance. Stripes or patches of different colors would also have been useful in the hunt, functioning exactly like a tiger’s stripes or the camouflage worn by hunters today. Once colored pigments were added, both war paint and cosmetics came into being. However, a simple mix of fat and ashes is not soap, but a precursor. For oils to saponify, ashes must be converted to lye. It was this process that must have been most elusive to our earliest ancestors. Even so, there is abundant evidence that the properties of caustic alkali salts were appreciated at a very early time.

Strictly speaking, ashes steeped in water do not create lye, but potash. Lye is a caustic sodium salt which is made from brine. The process for creating this chemical on an industrial scale was invented in the 19th century, and had a huge impact on the soap industry. Prior to that time, most soap was made with potash or a refined form call pearlash. Potash is a caustic salt of potassium rather than sodium. It is still used today in the production of liquid soaps. The addition of table salt or sodium chloride to harden soap was known at least as early as the Roman era, and in various locations natural deposits of caustic alkali were known to exist. Nevertheless, the use of sodium salts in the form of lye to create hard soaps was a late development.

The Elber Papyrus,written about 1550 BC is a scroll more than sixty feet long, containing nearly a thousand different prescriptions and discussions concerning a host of diseases and conditions. Egyptian medicine was holistic, and in many cases the ancient Egyptian treatments remain in use today. The Elbers papyrus contains one of the earliest descriptions of cancer and its treatment, describes the use of honey to heal wounds, outlines the earliest known treatment for the regeneration of hair loss, and describes the benefits of soap made with vegetable oils and herbs.

Many other ancient peoples also discovered the usefulness of soap. The ancient Romans, Celts, Hebrews, Phoenicians and Egyptians all knew how to saponify various fats and oils. There is supposedly a preserved soap factory at Pompeii, complete with finished, modern-looking bars, although more recent study of the site has thrown doubt on what this space may actually have been used for.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, much of Europe forgot how to make soap. Bathing remained popular, but it was often considered risqué or even a little sacrilegious. St. Jerome is supposed to have said that having been washed clean in Christ, it was not necessary to bathe again. It was a time when the Church held the great masses of people in an iron grip of ignorance and poverty. The filth and unsanitary conditions of medieval Europe contributed to plagues and all kinds of illness. Still, there were soapmaking centers in Italy and France as early as the 9th century.

Personal cleanliness did not gain mass popularity in Europe until the 17th century. Eventually, though, soapmaking industries did emerge in Italy and France. Vegetable oils and purified animal fats (lard and tallow) were blended with costly scents and colorants, as well as various kinds of botanical essences. In the 14th century the French emerged as the makers of the finest soaps, using imported oils instead of tallow. In England, where soapmaking had long been a byproduct of the chandler’s trade, soapmaking had yet to come into its own. Soapmakers who tried to specialize found themselves so heavily taxed that it was difficult to stay in business.

The Muslims who occupied Spain and North Africa during the height of the Islamic empire maintained a high level of cleanliness. Their cities were clean, beautiful and well-lit, and their universities attracted scholars from around the world. In science, art, medicine, philosophy, and many of the basic aspects of civilization, the Muslims provided the foundation which eventually lifted Europe up from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance. Throughout the Muslim world, soap was made from olive, palm, laurel and other oils. In Spain, the region called Castilla is remembered for a mild soap made from pure olive oil. True castile soap, made from olive oil or olive pomace oil (the oil drained and pressed from the leftover material from the olive press), is a soft white bar that is extremely mild. It doesn’t lather very well, though, and soapmakers experimented with adding other oils. Advances in shipping and exploration brought new materials to the marketplace, and soapmakers learned that coconut oil produces a luxurious lather; while palm oil stabilizes the mixture and produces a hard, long-lasting bar. Castor oil attracts moisture to the skin and adds lather as well. Many other oils are used for their healing and conditioning properties.

Soap was heavily taxed as a luxury item well into the 19th century, especially by the British. Once the taxes were lifted, soap became available to ordinary people, and sanitary conditions improved. Commercial soapmaking in America dates from 1608, when soapmakers arrived from England aboard the first ship to follow the Mayflower.

Soapmakers were pioneers in advertising. In 1837, two brothers-in-law, chandler William Proctor and James Gamble, a soapmaker, formed a partnership to manufacture and sell their products. These two men created a scheme for producing and distributing low cost, high quality soap products. They were extremely successful, and in less than twenty years, their annual sales exceeded $1,000,000. By 1904, the Proctor and Gamble company was spending nearly half a million dollars a year on advertising – a staggering amount for that time. Even today, their insights into mass-marketing and distribution are studied in college marketing courses.

William Colgate opened his factory in New York in 1806. Colgate introduced Cashmere Bouquet, America’s first perfumed soap, in 1872. Proctor and Gamble first marketed Ivory Soap in 1879. This product was the result of accidentally over-stirring a batch of soap, and the resulting infusion of air bubbles made it float. It was an instant hit.

During the Great Depression, with distribution failing and money in short supply, homeowners began searching for soap recipes. It was during this desperate period that daytime radio dramas were introduced to the America home, sponsored by companies seeking to market their soap. Today, they’re on TV instead of the radio, and we know them as “soap operas.”

The creation of the first synthetic detergents came in 1916. Since then, detergents and surfactants have gradually replaced the more natural oils in personal cleansing products. Sales of detergents surpassed soaps for the first time in 1953. Further refinements included the introduction of dishwashing powders, liquid hand cleaners and detergents for laundering in cold water. Today, most laundering and personal cleansing products are completely synthetic.

For centuries, soap has been made with animal fats as a byproduct of farming. Old-fashioned lard-and-lye soap has been around for generations and was made at home to clean laundry as well as for bathing. This was an arduous chore usually done by housewives. It involved steeping ashes to make lye, rendering saved fat and grease, and boiling the whole mess in a big iron pot. Commercial soapmakers – called chandlers because they also produced tallow candles – would collect ashes, animal fats and grease from homesteads, exchanging them for finished soap.

Early homemade soaps were soft. They were kept in barrels and ladled out as needed. Salt was added to harden the soap so that it could be cut into bars. (The Roman scholar and historian Pliny the Elder was the first to write about adding salt to harden soap). Salt was too expensive for the average person to add to soap, but chandlers used it to create large blocks. Bars were cut from these blocks and sold, but individual wrapped bars did not become common until the middle of the 19th century. The discovery of industrial processes to create lye from brine instead of ashes revolutionized the soap industry and made commercial mass-production of soap bars possible.

Soap was an important commodity in mid-19th century America. Although germs were not yet known, doctors noticed during the Civil War that soldiers who were bathed regularly and kept in clean environments had a much higher survival rate and got fewer infections. The credit for this discovery goes to a nurse who worked at the front during the Crimean War. Her name was Florence Nightingale.

Although fine domestic and imported soaps were then available, the Civil War created such economic hardship that many southern women made their own soap well into the 20th century.

Home production of soap remained strong during the 1940s, as the government was buying all the available grease to produce glycerin for explosives. But by the 1950s, the economy boomed and soapmaking began to decline. By the 60s, homemade soap was virtually unheard-of. People believed in the corporation. Nobody made things for themselves when the supermarket shelves were filled with affordable products. There was a television in every home, and corporate advertising made it seem glamorous to buy products that were once made by hand. Few people remembered the days when folks made their own, and no one even noticed when natural ingredients were replaced with synthetic, petroleum-based chemicals.

The brand name Palmolive once described the ingredients used to make a high-quality product, but after WWII it became simply a word which carried an implication of quality from an earlier era. Soapmaking was associated with poor, backwoods types who lived in places like the Appalachians. Folks moved to big cities, and most of them could not have told you what tallow was, or what it was good for.

Many commercial soaps today are not really soap at all. They are made with chemical detergents and petroleum byproducts. They contain carcinogens and allergens. Read the label on the soap you’re used to using, and you will understand why you often feel dry and itchy after your shower. You’ve been covering your skin with chemicals! Natural soap feels luxurious when you use it, and it nourishes and heals your skin. As the chemical industry has taken over, independent craftsmen have rediscovered the wonderful benefits of natural, handmade soap. Today, soapmaking is a cottage industry that is growing by leaps and bounds.

It takes a up to a month to create a single bar of soap! Once the ingredients are processed and mixed the soap is poured into molds, where it must stand for a day or two before it is solid enough for handling. It is then cut into bars which must be set on racks to cure for several weeks. The curing process allows the water to evaporate and the bars to harden. They are then trimmed and wrapped by hand. Whether it’s done as a hobby or a business, this is a labor of love!

Creating handmade soaps is a blend of art and science with endless opportunities for creativity. There are several processes used to make soaps at home, and each has its aficionados. Some prefer the hot-process method, which allows the soap to be used as soon as it is cooled. I prefer the so-called cold process because the extended curing time allows natural aromas and synergies to develop. Melt-and-pour is a technique that uses blocks of clear soap which are melted, colored, scented and poured into molds. These soaps can have small items imbedded in them, or can consist of clear, jewel-toned layers that resemble a parfait. People make soap in crock pots and microwaves. Joining a soap group on the Internet is a good way to learn the advantages and disadvantages of the various approaches. Soapers are generally a very friendly bunch and love to share recipes and tips. Farmers Markets, Street Fairs and Craft Shows usually feature at least a few soapers. There are many books on soapmaking, and websites beyond number.

As we move into the 21st century, soapmaking has come, in some ways, full-circle. The synthetic detergents are here to stay. But so is the luxury of handmade artisan soap. There's tremendous satisfaction in making something at home that turns out better than any product you can buy.

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