A Brief History of Soapmaking


Jumping in the shower or soaking for an hour in a nice hot bath once was not as important and desirable as it is today. It wasn’t until later in the eighteenth century that cleansing our bodies for the sake of getting rid of the ‘stank’ and promoting better hygiene grew in popularity. This can of course be credited to the increased understanding of how to make soap and also the increase in demand for soap, which gradually took place over the last couple thousand years. While this is in no way a conclusive post, we will try to be as concise as possible while providing some supporting information for you and this topic will be expanded over a few blog posts and updated over time.

It is believed that soap was discovered several thousand years ago as animal fats dripped onto the ashes below as individuals cooked wild game over fires. The reaction between the animal fats and the wood ashes resulted in a white substance which created suds and acted as a cleansing agent in the presence of water. The earliest documented evidence we have of soap making dates back to between 2200 - 3000 B.C.; at which point animal fats were boiled with plant ash to create a very basic and most likely smelly soap. This particular date range is provided due to conflicting evidence of an actual date and where the earliest evidence was first discovered. Currently, Babylon and Sumer are the two contesting regions to prove where the earliest evidence was located. However, in spite of the discrepancies, we can certainly agree that soap making has been around for quite some time.

In ancient Rome, bathing consisted of applying oils, sand and/or pumice or some other abrasive and scraping them off with a strigil (you can see a photo of it below) before entering the bath. This was thought to help remove any excess dirt and perspiration before submerging in a bath. Using soap as a cleansing agent during bath time is not found in Roman history. However, the Romans did use soap to cleanse fabric and make a type balm to treat skin diseases. This was apparently done on a larger scale. According to Pauline Newman,

"We know that the ancient Romans used soap because it's mentioned in several of their books," says Nina Hall. "But they didn't use it to wash their bodies, but instead used it as an ointment to treat skin diseases. And in fact, a soap making factory was discovered in the ruins of Ancient Roman Pompeii, which was destroyed by a volcano in AD 79." 

Remember me mentioning early that soap probably smelled a little stinky? Well, let's look at why this may have been during the time of the Romans. The Romans would sometimes use urine to make soap. Let me explain this a little because you're probably saying to yourself....wth....right?

What they would do is sit large pots at the end of the streets and people from the neighborhoods would come and submit their contributions for soapmaking (animal fats, water, urine, etc). For urine, they would have to let it sit for a few weeks to decompose. Decomposed urine is essentially ammonia; which is a decent cleansing agent but the area had to wreak something awful!

After the Romans; documentation of soapmaking was almost non-existent until the Ebers Papyrus (an ancient Egyptian Herbal Medical document dating back to 1550 B.C.) was discovered. This document contains evidence of soap recipes, which include animal fats but also the new addition of vegetable fats. This was a bit of a change from soaps made with primarily animal fats up to this point.

Pliny the Elder notes that the Phoenicians used goat's tallow and wood ashes to create soap in 600 B.C. Also by 1200 AD, Marseilles, France and Savona, Italy were very influential in soapmaking.

During the 8th century, Italy and Spain were making soap from goat fat and Beech tree ashes. During the same period, the French started using olive oil to produce soap. You may or may not be familiar with Marseille Soap. It is a soap made by mixing seawater from the Mediterranean Sea, Olive Oil and the alkali chemicals soda ash and lye (sodium carbonate and sodium hydroxide. It is quite similar to what you may recognize as Castile Soap; a soap originating from the region of Castile, Spain that uses Olive Oil as its only fatty acid.

Just to give you an idea of how large soap production in Marseilles, France was; by 1913 they produced over 180,000 tons of soap. That’s a lot of freakin’ soap!

There is quite a bit more that has occurred from that point in history to modern day and we’ll try to cover a bit more of that in the next article. We’ll see if this extends to more than one more post. In the meantime, you should go check out the soaps we've made. I can assure you no urine is included in our process.

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