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history of soaphistory of soap


although no one really knows how or when soap was discovered, there are various legends surrounding it’s beginning. according to roman legend, soap was named after ‘mount sapo’, an ancient site of animal sacrifices. after an animal sacrifice, rain would wash the animal fat and ash that collected under the ceremonial altars down the slopes to the banks of the tiber river. women washing clothes in the river noticed that if they washed their clothes in certain parts of the river after a heavy rain their clothes were much cleaner. thus the emergence of the first soap – or at least the first use of soap.

a soap-like material found in clay cylinders during the excavation of ancient babylon is evidence that soapmaking was known as early as 2800 B.C. inscriptions on the cylinders say that fats were boiled with ashes, a soap-making method.

by the second century a.d., the greek physician, galen, recommended soap for both medicinal and cleansing purposes.

bathing habits all over europe rose and declined with roman civilization. when rome fell in 467 a.d., so did bathing. it’s said that the lack of cleanliness and poor living conditions contributed to the many plagues of the middle ages.

in the seventh century soapmakers appeared in spain and italy where soap was made with goat fat and beech tree ashes. at this time the french started using olive oil to make soap. eventually, fragrances were introduced and specialized soaps for bathing, shaving, shampooing and laundry began to appear.

the english began making soap during the 12th century. in the reign of elizabeth I, soap consumption in england was greater than in any other european country. it was reported that the queen took a bath every four weeks 'whether it was necessary or not.' just as the soap industry was gaining momentum in england, it became the subject of a series of restrictions and crippling taxation.

it wasn't until the 18th century that bathing came into fashion. in 1791, the french chemist nicolas leblanc discovered how to extract soda from common salt. around the same time, louis pasteur proclaimed that good personal hygiene would reduce the spread of diseases.

by the beginning of the 19th century, soap making was one of the fastest growing industries in the u.s. rural americans made homemade soap using a process from the colonial times. they would save ashes from their fires for months. when they had enough fat left over from butchering hogs they would make soap.

the most difficult part of early soapmaking was determining if the lye was the correct strength. the “lye water” was considered the proper strength to make soap when an egg or small potato placed in the solution floated about halfway beneath the surface of the solution. if the egg or potato floated on top, the lye was too strong. if it sank quickly, the lye was too weak. some early soapmakers used goose or chicken feathers to test their lye. if a feather inserted in the lye water began to dissolve in it, then the lye water was at the right strength.

since there was no accurate way to measure the lye concentration, this old fashioned method often resulted in harsh soap, which has given lye soaps an undeserved bad reputation. early soapmakers often had to make many batches of soap before one was suitable to be used by their family.

during world war I, commercial soap, as we know it today, came into existence. the injuries of war brought an increased need for cleaning agents. however, at the same time, the ingredients needed to make soap were scarce. german scientists created a new form of 'soap' made with various synthetic compounds and as a result detergents were born. many commercial soaps available today are actually detergents, which are made with petroleum by-products. since these 'soaps' are detergents, by law can not be called soap. chances are that when you see a soap called a 'body cleanser', it is not soap at all.

after the great war and until the 1930's, 'soap' was made by a method called batch kettle boiling. commercial soap makers had huge three story kettles that produced thousands of pounds of soap over the course of about a week. shortly thereafter, an invention called continuous process was introduced and refined by procter & gamble. this process decreased soap making production time to less than a day. large commercial soap manufacturers still use continuous process.

today there is a heightened awareness of the possible adverse effects of many of the synthetic additives and chemicals in commercial soap. educated consumers are turning to all natural products. even large companies are starting to advertise 'natural ingredients' in their products. beware! the addition of one or two natural ingredients does not make a product 'all natural'. it is virtually impossible for large companies to create natural, handmade soaps. 


history of soap