The history of soap making: taking a closer look

In today’s germ conscious society, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without soap.

In prehistoric times, before the invention of soap, people bathed themselves with only water, and used flowing water, such as rivers and streams, to clean their clothes.

However, the practice of soap making was discovered almost three thousand years ago, and has become an indispensable part of modern civilized society.

The earliest evidence of soap making is a soap-like material found in the bottoms of Babylonian clay jars dating from about 2800 B.C.E. The recipe for this soap – water, alkali and cassia oil – was engraved on the outside of the jars. The Babylonians used this cassia soap to clean themselves, as well as to treat skin diseases, and to cleanse and nourish hair.

The Ebers papyrus, dating from about 1550 B.C.E., indicates that the ancient Egyptians also combined animal and vegetable fats with alkali, or lye, to create soap, and that they bathed regularly.

The early Greeks and Romans were largely ignorant of the detergent properties of soap, and instead applied perfumed oils to their skin, then used a strigil (a small piece of curved metal) to scrape away the oil, as well as dirt and sweat. They also sometimes scrubbed their skin with clay, sand or pumice to exfoliate and cleanse themselves.

However, by the second century C.E., the Greek physician Galen described the process of soap-making using animal fats and lye, and recommended using soap to keep oneself clean, and help prevent the spread of disease.

He claimed that German soap was of the highest quality, and soaps from Gaul were second best.

The ancient Hebrews used salt, found in local lakes and reservoirs, as a base to make the alkali for use in their soap, and this practice is still in use by many modern cultures.

A Roman legend, which has since been proven unlikely, claimed that the Romans named soap after Mount Sapo, where animal sacrifices were burned. The fat from the sacrificed animal would mix with the alkali from the wood ashes, and this mixture was supposedly washed down the mountain by rainwater and melting snow.

According to the legend, women who washed their clothes in this river found that they became cleaner with far less effort.

However, the edible parts of an animal were usually kept by the people, and the parts that were
sacrificed – the bones and innards – wouldn’t have contained enough fat for this process to have occurred.

A guild of soap makers existed in Naples in the sixth century C.E., and by the eighth century C.E., soap making had become popular in Spain and Italy. In the beginning of the seventh century, soap-makers in West Bank and Iraq began using perfumed oils, and adding colorants and scents to their soaps; they also were among the first to make liquid and shaving soaps.

Around the 16th century C.E., finer soaps were produced in Europe, using vegetable oils instead of animal fat.

Castile soap, made using pure olive oil, is a popular example of an all-vegetable based soap.

The British, and early American colonists, were the first to make soap using the cold process method – they measured the ingredients accurately, stirred them together, and didn’t apply any external heat during saponification.

Generally soap-makers made soap in large batches twice per year, because cold-process soap took a long time to cure.

Take the next step

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