Soap is such a big part of our lives, yet most of us give it little thought. We don’t know much about the interesting and sometimes controversial history of soap making. Across generations, people have been working on the recipe and passing down their knowledge to the next generation. For centuries we have been refining the recipe and ingredients. Bringing us from the start of soap making history, which was a harsh, stinky goop; to the sophisticated modern, chemical detergents we use today.
The precise history of soaps beginnings are not known for sure as they are mostly based on myth and legends. Not all the facts are known as there are gaps in soap makings recorded history and not all cultures kept written records. The first recorded evidence of soap comes from ancient Babylon. Archaeologists found remnants of soap like materials in clay cylinders from around 2800BC. That’s over 3000 years ago! Inscribed on these cylinders was something along the lines of “fats boiled with ashes”, which simply put is how soap is made.
Fats rendered from animals were mixed with water and Lye which is a caustic substance obtained from wood ash. This greasy, sloppy mixture had the ability to lift dirt away and suspend it in water so it could be washed away.
In the beginning, people only used this early soap to clean wool and cotton fibres. It was not used for personal hygiene. Even the Greeks and Romans who developed running water and baths didn’t use soap to clean their bodies with. People used water to wash with water and then covered their bodies with scented olive oil. They would use a metal or read scraper to physically remove any dirt or grime that remained on their skin.
There are many other early civilizations that used these early forms of soap. The ancient Egyptians bathed regularly and old texts talk of mixing animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts.
In the middle ages, the first true vegetable oil-based soaps were developed. In comparison, these animal fat soaps these new soaps were mild and gentle and even smelled good. The first of these pure soaps were produced in Syria and was called Aleppo soap. It was made with an olive oil base and mixed with fragrant laurel oils. This soap was brought to Europe by the Christian crusaders. These soaps became a luxury item to the privileged classes of Europe.
In quick succession, the French, Italian, Spanish and English versions followed and soap making became an established art. The best known became Castile Soap which was named after the region in Central Spain where it was first made. In this area there was a constant supply of olive oil which was used for the base of the soap. Castile soap became a popular item amongst the royalty of Europe. These days Castile soap has become the general name for soap produced in this method.
Bathing has always been a part of human culture and traditions differed from people to people. The Ancient Greeks were the first to develop showers, where water flowed over people’s heads from led pipes.
The Romans really put baths on the map of human history by expanding on the Greeks idea of pipes. They created expansive aqueduct systems which were able to supply water to public bathhouses. Interesting how now days bathing is viewed as a very private affair. For thousands of years bathing was a social event, a way for people to connect and for community to be fostered. Many people could not afford their own private bathing facilities and this was the most convenient way for people to clean themselves. The Romans took great pride in the human body and bathing naked in public was a chance to show off and even a social event.
When the Roman empire collapsed so too did a lot of the bathhouses and aqueducts. Many fell into disrepair and a lot of public bathhouses disappeared. Regular bathing declined across Europe. People didn’t just forget about bathing and it was still a part of it, but the moral culture around it changed significantly.
Catholic teachings of the time taught that people should cover up entirely, except for the hands and head. Bathing naked in front of other people became frowned upon and small wooden bathtubs became more popular. Yet these medieval bathhouses with their small tubs became controversial too as some became the front for brothels and prostitution. The wealthiest people may have been able to afford the luxury of private baths in their homes. For commoners, there was no choice but to use a bathhouse or not bath at all.
Economics also played a hand in the cleanliness of Europe at the time. The Romans had enjoyed the riches and spoils of their conquering empire. They had the wealth to spare to build and maintain their bathhouses and aqueducts. Things were very different for the Christians of Europe. They were besieged by famines and plagues which wiped out entire populations. This era was characterized by great, expensive wars. The focus of kings and lords was on winning not on bathing or the finer things in life.
Cleanliness and regular bathing came back into fashion in the 17th century in Europe. Mostly among the wealthy. In the Middle Ages soap was made by independent artisans. Working and refining their secret recipes which were then handed down from master to apprentice.
Natural resources became an issue as the need for supplies to produce soap grew. Large areas of British woodlands were destroyed to the create wood ash which in turn led to countrywide shortages of winter fuel. In the 16th Century there were 3 main varieties of soap. Course soap which was made from whale blubber, sweet soap which was made from olive oil and speckled soap which was made from tallow. For a time the production of speckled soap was forbidden as its production would deplete the nations tallow reserves. During this time candles were also made of tallow. The shortage of tallow would have pushed the price of candles beyond the reach of the poor.
In 1712 the soap tax was introduced in England. It tripled the price of soap making it a luxury item that the poorer classes could no longer afford. The government earned a significant amount of revenue from this tax so the soap making process was closely supervised and controlled. To save their businesses many soap makers were forced to leave England for other countries that had no soap tax. The tax and control over the industry led to soap smuggling. It was only in 1853 that the soap tax was finally repealed and poor people could afford to buy soap. The overall cleanliness of society began to improve.
Soap making changed forever in 1791 when a French chemist patented the process of making soda ash from common salt. This discovery was the first step in making large scale soap production possible.
During the 18th and 19th centuries that the idea took hold that bathing and washing with soap could lead to better health and help prevent diseases. In America, during the 1860s the U.S. Sanitary Commission was created to help save lives during the Civil War. They helped save wounded soldiers lives by washing the patients, their clothes and even the walls of their rooms. Helping to save many more lives from disease. Personal hygiene began to catch on and the demand for cheaper soaps for the masses began increasing. New products began being developed, including perfumed soaps. Commercial advertising in the US also took off around the same time and soap was made famous through adverts.
Soap makers found cheaper oils like imported coconut and palm oil and even locally produced cottonseed oil. This lead to hydrogenated fats being discovered which revolutionised soap making.
The next big change for soap came again because of war and soap as we know it changed drastically during WW1 and WW2. During this time there was a vast shortage of animal and plant fats which up until then had been fundamental to making soap. This shortage pushed chemists to find alternatives and they discovered other chemicals that could synthesize similar properties to soap. This was the birth of detergents which have changed the process of soap making and flooded the market. These days basically everything we call ‘soap’ is actually a detergent.
These modern, commercially manufactured soaps are highly specialised and engineered in labs using synthetic chemicals. The synthesised fats and oils are combined with other chemical ingredients like conditioners, moisturisers, scents and lathering agents to try and make them more attractive to our senses.
Mankind truly has gone on a great journey with soap. Huge jumps in technology and chemical advancements have helped make soap cheap and available to almost everyone. Yet along the journey have we somehow lost our way? In recent years there has been a huge resurgence of artisan soap makers. People who have looked back on the history of soap and combined the best of both the past and the present. Are we finally finding a safer, cleaner yet still environmentally viable way to produce soap?