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The History of Soap: The Dirty Truth You Never Heard

The History of Soap
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The history of soap is a long and sordid story. We use this special substance everyday, but many of us don’t know the history of soap.

The History of Soap
The History of Soap

The History of Soap

The history of soap is a long and sordid story. It stretches from the ancient Mesopotamian, throughout the ancient world and right into our everyday lives. While we use this special substance everyday, many of us don’t know the history of soap and how we get clean.

“Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.” That’s what the CDC has advised all Americans to do to prevent the spread of diseases and bacteria.

It’s common-sense advice. The surfactants found in soap lift germs from the skin, and water then washes them away. Soap is inexpensive and ubiquitous; it’s a consumer product found in every household across the country.

Yet few people know the long and dirty history of making soap, the product we rely on to clean ourselves. I’m a historian who focuses on material culture in much of my research. As I started digging into what’s known about soap’s use in the past, I was surprised to discover its messy origins.

Read More: How Is Soap Made? This is the Unsurpassed Guide

History of Soap: Key Points

  • Ancient Mesopotamians were the first to produce a kind of soap by cooking fatty acids.
  • An early mention of soap comes in Roman scholar Pliny the Elder’s book “Naturalis Historia” from A.D. 77.
  • One of the best known old soaps is Jabon de Castilla, or Castile soap. Castile soap gets it’s name from the Castile region of Spain.
  • Finally, the Civil War was a watershed moment for hygiene, bathing and soap usage.

See Also: Cold Process Soap: Best Benefits of Making Soap at Home

Gross ingredients to clean things up

Ancient Mesopotamians were the first to produce a kind of soap by cooking fatty acids – like the fat rendered from a slaughtered cow, sheep or goat – together with water and an alkaline like lye, a caustic substance derived from wood ashes. The result was a greasy and smelly goop that lifted away dirt.

An early mention of soap comes in Roman scholar Pliny the Elder’s book “Naturalis Historia” from A.D. 77. He described soap as a pomade made of tallow. Typically derived from beef fat. Then combined with ashes that the Gauls, particularly the men, applied to their hair to give it “a reddish tint.”

Ancient people used these early soaps to clean wool or cotton fibers before weaving them into cloth. Soap wasn’t as important for human hygiene. Not even the Greeks and Romans, who pioneered running water and public baths, used soap to clean their bodies. Instead, men and women immersed themselves in water baths and then smeared their bodies with scented olive oils. They used a metal or reed scraper called a strigil to remove any remaining oil or grime.

Finally, by the Middle Ages, new vegetable-oil-based soaps,(Like ours at Capulet) which were hailed for their mildness and purity and smelled good, had come into use as luxury items among Europe’s most privileged classes. The first of these, Aleppo soap, a green, olive-oil-based bar soap infused with aromatic laurel oil, was produced in Syria and brought to Europe by Christian crusaders and traders.

The History of Soap Continued

French, Italian, Spanish and eventually English versions soon followed. The best known of these is Jabon de Castilla, or Castile soap. Castile soap gets it’s name from the Castile region of Spain. The white, olive-oil-based bar soap was a wildly popular toiletry item among European royals. Finally, Castile soap became a generic term for any hard soap of this type.

The settlement of the American colonies coincided with an age (1500s-1700s) when most Europeans, whether privileged or poor, had turned away from regular bathing out of fear that water actually spread disease. Colonists used soap primarily for domestic cleaning. Soap-making was part of the seasonal domestic routine of the women.

As one Connecticut woman described it in 1775, women stored fat from butchering, grease from cooking and wood ashes over the winter months. In the spring, they made lye from the ashes and then boiled it with fat and grease in a giant kettle. Further, this produced a soft soap that women used to wash the linen shifts that colonists wore as undergarments.

Late Soap History

In the new nation, the founding of soap manufactures like New York-based Colgate, founded in 1807, or the Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, founded in 1837, increased the scale of soap production but did little to alter its ingredients or use. Middle-class Americans had resumed water bathing, but still shunned soap.

Soap-making remained an extension of the tallow trade that was closely allied with candle making. Soap itself was for laundry. Furthermore, at the first P&G factory, laborers used large cauldrons to boil down fat collected from homes, hotels and butchers to make the candles and soap they sold.

From cleaning objects to cleaning bodies

The Civil War was the watershed. Thanks to reformers who touted regular washing with water and soap as a sanitary measure to aid the Union war effort, bathing for personal hygiene caught on. Demand for inexpensive toilet soaps increased dramatically among the masses.

Companies began to develop and market a variety of new products to consumers. In 1879, P&G introduced Ivory soap, one of the first perfumed toilet soaps in the U.S. B.J. Johnson Soap Company of Milwaukee followed with their own palm and olive oil based Palmolive soap in 1898. Finally, it was the world’s best-selling soap by the early 1900s.

Soap chemistry was also changing, paving the way for the modern era. At P&G, decades of laboratory experiments with imported coconut and palm oil, and then with domestically produced cottonseed oil, led to the discovery of hydrogenated fats in 1909. These solid, vegetable-based fats revolutionized soap by making its manufacture less dependent on animal byproducts. Shortages of fats and oils for soap during World Wars I and II also led to the discovery of synthetic detergents as a “superior” substitute for fat-based laundry soaps, household cleaners and shampoos.

Modern Bathing Continued

Today’s commercially made soaps are highly specialized, lab-engineered products. Company’s synthesize animal fats and plant-based oils and bases. They then combine these with chemical additives, including moisturizers, conditioners, lathering agents, colors and scents, to make soaps more appealing to the senses. But they cannot fully mask its mostly foul ingredients, including shower gels’ petroleum-based contents.

As a 1947 history of soap observed: “Soap is a desperately ordinary substance to us.”

As unremarkable as it is during normal times, soap has risen to prominence during recent events.

Read More: How to make soap you love: the easiest ways in the world

The History of Soap: Final Thoughts

The history of soap reaches from the beginning of recorded time right into our daily lives. It’s a long and sordid history but it’s worth understanding because it helps us know how we get clean. While it’s something we use daily it’s easy to miss. Once we look carefully, it turn out it’s very important.

Soap may not seem important, but it is important in keeping us and our families safe, happy, and healthy. This is the most important goal there is.

Finally, the ingredients in soap come from many interesting and sometimes pretty ugly places. Trust us, we know this first hand. That’s why at Capulet Soaps we use vegan and animal safe products for our soaps.

History of Soap: Soap Takeaways

  • Ancient Mesopotamians were the first to produce a kind of soap by cooking fatty acids.
  • An early mention of soap comes in Roman scholar Pliny the Elder’s book “Naturalis Historia” from A.D. 77.
  • One of the best known old soaps is Jabon de Castilla, or Castile soap. Castile soap gets it’s name from the Castile region of Spain.
  • Finally, the Civil War was a watershed moment for hygiene, bathing and soap usage.

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