The Origins of Soap
Soap is an integral part of our lives -- and potentially now more than ever, thanks to the COVID-19 crisis. We use soap to clean our hands, our bodies, our dishes and our clothes.
But how did we get here?
Early origins of soapmaking
Our earliest evidence comes from the Babylonians, around 2800 B.C. An excavation of the ancient Mesopotamian city discovered a soap-like substance inside clay cylinders. Also found on these cylinders was an inscribed “recipe” indicating the boiling of fats and ashes to create this substance.1
A similar “recipe” combining animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts was detailed in Egyptian medical texts (the Ebers papyrus) dated around 1550 B.C., and was apparently used to treat skin diseases.2 Though it created a substance similar to what we know today as soap, it was not necessarily known as such during this time.3
In 77 A.D. we find an early instance of the Latin word for soap, sapo, within Roman naturalist philosopher Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. But rather than used for cleanliness, he describes a substance made from rendered animal fat and ashes that gives “a reddish tint” to one’s hair.4
Historians say that these soap-like substances were also used to clean fibers (such as wool) to prepare them for weaving. So while there’s evidence of something like soap being created and used by ancient people, it was not necessarily being used as we do today!
That part comes next…
Soapmaking in medieval times
It’s here that we begin to see the creation of soap as a craft, as it spread throughout the Mediterreanean in countries like Spain and Italy.5
There are historical accounts of soapmakers in medieval Italy working as part of guilds. One example comes from 8th century Northern Italy, in which King Ildebrand of the Lombards promised to provide 30 pounds of soap each year to the bishop of Piacenza that would be used to bathe the poor. To make such a promise would require the local soapmakers to provide the king a certain amount of product each year, and thus they would need to divide the labor amongst themselves and ensure it was distributed fairly -- effectively creating a guild.6
We also see the profile of soap raised under a series of laws outlined by Charlemagne for his Carolingian Empire (which covered much of western and central Europe during the 9th century).
His Capitulare de Villis mentioned soapmaking as a necessary labor. It was deemed a product of “good workmen,” along with professions such as carpenters, metalsmiths, fishermen and more.7
Still made using animal fats, soap during the Middle Ages in Europe actually had an unpleasant smell. But better smelling cleansing soap began to arrive from Islamic lands, which incorporated olive oil and sometimes lime.8
Now we’ve begun to see soap take on a more important role in society, as both basic necessity and a respected craft. As the Middle Ages moved along, soapmaking production centers began to emerge.
The first prominent center of soapmaking is thought to be Marseilles, France, in the 13th century. Rival centers included Genoa, Venice and Bari in Italy; and Castilla, Spain. All of these places boasted plentiful supplies of olive oil and the barilla plant (its ashes were used to create lye), which became the standard soapmaking formula for centuries afterward.9
There’s also evidence of soapmaking production centers in England around this time, in the towns of Bristol, Coventry and London.10
Following the Middle Ages, Marseilles in the 16th century continued to be France’s soapmaking center and supplied the product across the country. Even today, the region continues this tradition and its soaps are still used and beloved thanks to its simple, natural recipe of vegetable oil, soda, salt and fresh water.11
Similarly, we still see the popularity of Castile soap (which originated from Castilla, Spain) due to its natural ingredients (it uses vegetable-, plant- or nut-based oil) and a lack of detergents.12
An American arrival
In the next century, soap began its move across the ocean. soapmaking in the American colonies started 1608 when an English ship arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, with several Polish and German soapmakers on board. The soaps made in the colonies used animal fat and professional soapmakers would gather it from households, providing their soap in exchange.13
Despite the presence of soap, personal hygiene was not a priority in pre-Civil War America. And though there were some professional soapmakers, much of it was done by women in the households. It was also quite the burdensome task -- so demand likely wouldn’t have been met if it was high, anyway.
Making a barrel of soap would take a day and required over 20 pounds of fat (to be rendered) and bushels of ashes; the rendered fat and a lye solution were combined and boiled for six to eight hours. This resulted in a soft, jelly-like substance that the colonists mostly used for laundry purposes every month (or, in some cases, every four months!).
Hard soaps were also created by adding salt to the mixture toward the end of the boiling, though this was uncommon as salt was expensive and usually more necessary for other household purposes.14
But American attitudes toward hygiene began to change following the Civil War. Germ theory, which posits that microorganisms cause diseases, became more commonly accepted. By the late 19th century, doctors increasingly promoted personal hygiene as a crucial component to stopping the spread of disease.15
Advancements lead to wide-scale soap production
As soap spread, so did its purpose: people were using it to clean not only their clothing, but themselves. But how did it grow into the industry we see today?
Let’s return to France.
In the late 18th century, chemist Nicholas Leblanc discovered how to make soda ash from salt. As we’ve seen before, soda ash is the alkali that’s combined with fats to form soap. Leblanc’s patented method made it easier and less expensive to produce large quantities of high-quality soda ash at the industrial level.16 This was also an important discovery as it meant ash could be created without burning trees, which had previously caused shortages.
But it wasn’t perfect. The process was considered wasteful, labor-intensive and polluting. So the method was improved upon and replaced by Belgian chemist Ernest Solvay’s ammonia-soda process in the mid-19th century.17 Solvay was able to create soda ash from brine and limestone, which made the process even more inexpensive.
Starting in 1811, another French chemist began his study of a soap made from pig fat. Michel-Eugène Chevreul discovered that the soapmaking process released a substance from the fats that he named glycerin. This substance retained moisture and could remain in the soap or be removed for use as an ingredient in other products.18
Chevreul’s research and discoveries on the chemistry of soap and fats helped lead to improvements and greater uniformity of product in the industry.19
The soap industry booms
With these advancements made, the industry was able to take off by the late 19th century. By 1850, it was one of America’s fastest-growing industries, and big-name soap manufacturers (still around today!) such as Colgate, Proctor and Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and more began to pop up in the U.S.20
One of the innovators of soap commercialization was businessman Benjamin T. Babbitt, who manufactured “Babbitt’s Best Soap.” Babbitt set up his own factory in New York City, and decided to sell his soap in individual bars that were packaged and included a claim of quality. Though it was more costly to purchase his soap compared to home-produced soaps, he had a gimmick to encourage customers: they could trade the soaps’ packaging wrappers for an (inexpensive, but useful) item.21 The accessibility and marketing of these individual bars in 1851 helped transform soap from a homemade product to something to be purchased.
The National Museum of History notes that American soap manufacturers also began advertising soap by connecting good personal hygiene with being a good American. These advertisements “showed soaps as products of progress” and made some outlandish claims, declaring that soap would wash away “ignorance, poverty, lawlessness, and general immorality.”
Colgate introduced the first American perfumed soap, Cashmere Bouquet, in 1872; Proctor and Gamble introduced its flagship Ivory Soap in 1879.22 The Ivory Soap became an enticing product for consumers because of its ability to float in water and its purity claims.23
Though purity remains important to today’s customers, most commercially made soaps are actually “detergents.” During the two World Wars, there were shortages of the animal and vegetable fats, as well as oil, used to make soap. A new soapmaking process had to be created using other raw materials that were then “synthesized” into chemicals with properties similar to soap.24 So while they look, act and smell like soaps, they’re actually made with very different chemical ingredients.
Maintaining the purity of soapmaking, seen in the generations of soapmakers before us, is what makes BearMoon Soaps proud of our products. Our handmade 5 oz. bars don’t contain chemical detergents, synthetic lathering agents, parabens or phthalates. Instead, we use healthy base oils, essential oils, fragrance oils and natural additives such as honey, aloe, silk and oatmeal. This combination of oils, water and lye produce glycerin, a natural humectant that attracts moisture from the air to keep skin moisturized and hydrated.
If you’d like to learn more about our handmade, natural and cruelty-free soapmaking process, click here!
1 Koza, Darrell, et al. Chemical Composition of Everyday Products, pp. 4. United Kingdom, Greenwood Press, 2005.
2 Koza, Darrell, et al. Chemical Composition of Everyday Products, pp. 4-5. United Kingdom, Greenwood Press, 2005.
3 Forbes, Robert James. Studies in Ancient Technology. Netherlands, E. J. Brill, 1957.
4 Konkol, Kristine & Rasmussen, Seth. (2015). An Ancient Cleanser: Soap Production and Use in Antiquity. 10.1021/bk-2015-1211.ch009.
5 Anionic Surfactants: Organic Chemistry, p. 632. Hong Kong, Taylor & Francis, 1996.
6 Epstein, Steven A.. Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe, pp. 42-43. United States, University of North Carolina Press.
7 Robinson, James Harvey (1904). Readings in European History: Vol. I. Ginn and co.
8 Al-Hassan, A. Y., et al. Science and Technology in Islam: Technology and applied sciences, pp. 73-74. France, UNESCO Pub., 2001.
9 Bramson, Ann. Soap: Making It, Enjoying it, pp. 57-58. United States, Workman Publishing Company, 1975.
10 “The History of Soapmaking.” OpenLearn, The Open University, 30 Aug. 2019.
11 Whitman-Salkin, Sarah. “The 162-Year-Old, 4-Ingredient Soap Beloved Throughout France.” Food52, Food52, 30 Jan. 2019.
12 Rud, Melanie. “Pure Castile Soap Is the Magical Natural Soap You Can Use for Everything.” Shape, Meredith Corporation, 7 Oct. 2019.
13 Koza, Darrell, et al. Chemical Composition of Everyday Products, p. 7. United Kingdom, Greenwood Press, 2005.
14 Kostka, Kimberly L, and David D McKay. “Chemists Clean Up: A History and Exploration of the Craft of Soapmaking.” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 79, no. 10, Oct. 2002, pp. 1172–1174.
15 “Bathing (Body Soaps and Cleansers).” National Museum of American History , Smithsonian Institution.
16 Koza, Darrell, et al. Chemical Composition of Everyday Products, p. 7. United Kingdom, Greenwood Press, 2005.
17 Kiefer, David M. “Soda Ash, Solvay Style.” Today's Chemist at Work, vol. 11, no. 2, Feb. 2002.
18 Ditchfield, Christin. The Story Behind Soap, p. 17. United States, Heinemann Library, 2011.
19 Costa, Albert B. “Michel-Eugène Chevreul.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 Apr. 2020.
20 “Bathing (Body Soaps and Cleansers).” National Museum of American History , Smithsonian Institution.
21 Ewen, Stuart. Channels of Desire, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, pp. 38–39.
22 Kostka, Kimberly L, and David D McKay. “Chemists Clean Up: A History and Exploration of the Craft of Soapmaking.” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 79, no. 10, Oct. 2002, pp. 1172–1174.
23 “Birth of an Icon.” Ivory.com, Procter & Gamble, ivory.com/our-heritage/.
24 “Soaps & Detergents History.” The American Cleaning Institute (ACI), www.cleaninginstitute.org/understanding-products/why-clean/soaps-detergents-history.
Clarke Anderson Catherine
What a wonderful article! Thank you for this interesting history lesson.