The History of Soap Making

The history of soap making is closely woven into the history of many civilizations. This is because soap (once discovered) was not only used for cleaning, but it was also used for healing, for religious rituals, and to show wealth or prestige.

The Ancient World

Our first records of soap were dated as early as 2800 BC. An excavation of ancient Babylon revealed evidence of soap making since soap-like material (remains of fats boiled with ashes) were found in clay jars. It is unknown, however, if these were used for the same purposes we use soap today. This soap-like material could have been used as a hairstyling aid, just as the Germans and Gauls of ancient Europe used soap (a mixture of tallow and ash) to tint their hair.

Next oldest are records found in ancient Egypt, particularly the Ebers Papyrus which was dated 15000 BC described the combining of animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts. The material that was formed (soap) was said to treat skin diseases, and was also used for washing. It seems that though the ancient Egyptians did have soap and their records show that they bathed regularly, they used other materials for their personal hygiene.

The Bible too has records of soap making, with Moses giving an order to mix oils and ashes in order to produce a cleanser for the hair. It was from Moses' decree that the famous line “cleanliness is next to godliness” was derived.

Though this history of soap making shows that many ancient civilizations had access to soap and had knowledge of cleanliness, they didn't exactly see soap as part of cleanliness. For example, the ancient Greeks would bathe often and wash their clothes often, but neither process involved soap.

The Romans

An old Roman legends speaks of the discovery of soap as accidental. When the rains washed away a mixture of animal fat and wood ashes from Mount Sapo, the mountain in which animals were sacrificed for religious rituals, this mixture mixed in with the clay along the Tiber. This is why the women of Rome always found it easier to wash their laundry along the waters of the Tiber.

Like the Greeks, the Romans were well aware of cleanliness. One of the things the empire is famous for are the Roman Baths. These public bathing places were quite popular among the Romans, who constantly tried to improve their bathing systems and their cleanliness rituals. By the 2nd century AD, the Roman Galen recommended that soap must be used for bathing.

So soap gained acceptance among people and was sometimes seen as a necessity. After the fall of the Roman Empire, however, the Middle Ages brought about a dark and superstitious time which gave no importance to bathing. It is said that the lack of hygiene during this period is one of the reasons for the many plagues that wiped out the populations in Europe. The lack of hygiene continued for a long period of history, and it wasn't until the 17th century did bathing become popular once more.

Early Modern Period

The history of soap making took a great leap during this period in time. Soap making became an established craft among the guilds in Europe. Their most basic recipe was to mix vegetable and animal oils together with the ashes of plants. They also added fragrance to the mixture. With the development of many fragrances and the experimentation of which oils to use, guilds began to develop varieties of soap, turning the simple procedure into a profitable industry.

In the beginning, the soap was greatly taxed, making it something only the rich could afford. Later on, however, the tax was removed and soap became available to all people. This boosted its popularity, and soon everyone was bathing with soap!

Early centers of soap making in Europe include Italy, Spain, and France because these countries had a steady and good supply of raw materials for making good quality soap. Olive oil, for example.

Colonial History and the Modern World

Europe's history of soap making is centered around discovery. The history of soap making among the colonies is centered around the manufacturing of soap. It was during this era that discoveries or experiments yielded fruitful in the development and production of cheaper materials for making soap in abundance.

Soap manufacturers in the colonies adapted the new developments and discoveries involved with the making of soap. It was this openness to new methods and the support for “building things bigger” that prompted William Colgate to open Colgate & Co. in 1806. His company became the first big soap company in America, being able to produce 45000 lbs. of soap in one batch.

Not long after, William Proctor and James Gamble opened their own company from which Ivory soap was produced. B.J. Johnson also created his own company which chose to make soap only with palm and olive oils. He named his soap Palmolive, after the oil combination.

The soap industry continued to grow. However, most of the companies still used the old methods of making soap, which involved natural materials. It wasn't until a fats and oil shortage in Germany during World War I did scientists work on the chemistry of soap making and begin to develop synthetic materials for making soap. These synthetic materials produced a soap that did not combine with mineral salts in water (which natural soaps did) and form insoluble soap curds. They also found that these synthetic soaps made excellent cleaning agents, now known as detergents.

American soap manufacturers embraced the methods for making detergents, but continued to make natural soaps for self-hygiene. It wasn't until World War II when another shortage of fats and oils came did the detergent industry really take off in America. Primarily because the military needed a good and cheap cleaning agent that would work well with the sea water they had to wash their clothes with.

After the war, soaps and detergents continued to improve. The first commercially manufactured liquid hand soap came out it 1970, and from this innovation others followed. Now, there are so many types of soaps! From liquid soap to bath bombs to soap gels or beads, herbal soaps, natural material soaps, decorative soaps, and so many more!