The Origins of Soap I

At the dawn of human history, there was man.

Well, perhaps not this man, but you get the picture. Fighting off various woolen wild animals and discovering fire makes man and his clothes dirty.

How to correct this smelly problem? Early man—more likely early woman—would have used a nearby stream or river to clean these smelly articles, perhaps employing rocks to remove the dirt.

But, what about soap?

Soap. We use it every day—most of us (hopefully) use it several times a day. We wash our clothes with it as well as our bodies.

We rely on it to cleanse our dishes and protect us from infectious diseases. But, what is soap, really? How does it perform the near miraculous task of washing our world?

Does it matter what kind of soap we use?

According to the American Cleaning Institute, as early as 2800BCE, the ancient Babylonians created a soap-like material by combining animal fat and ashes.


Remnants of this material were found in modern day excavations.

What was the purpose of this soap-like material?

Hair-gel, of course!

No wonder Nebuchadnezzar and the other Babylonian kings had such awesome beards!

Now to fast forward to the Romans, who knew a thing or two about baths, drinking, and wearing sheets for clothes.

The Greeks and later the Romans used of perfumed oils for cleaning their bodies. They may have learned the art of soapmaking from the Celts. First-century Roman writer Pliny the Elder uses the Gallic word saipo, from which, it is said, we get  the word “soap.”

According to a more fantastic Roman legend, the Romans discovered the cleansing power of animal fat mixed with wood ashes after remnants of animal sacrifices from Mount Sapo washed into the soil along the river.

Women found that it was easier to wash clothing with this mixture.

EIther way, by the 2nd century AD, ritualized bathing with soap was used both as medicine as well as for bodily cleansing.

Medieval Europe saw a decline in bathing that corresponded with an increase in pestilence. As late as the 1800’s soap was considered a luxury item for the nobility and the rich.

Enter Ernest Solvay

By the middle of the 1800’s a Belgian chemist named Ernest Solvay helped paved the way for the every man (woman) to be clean.

He improved anearlier process of turning table salt into soda ash, an alkali used to make
soap. This ammonia-soda process reduced the cost of soda ash and increased the quality and efficiency of soap making.

By the end of the 19th century, soap making was one of America’s fastest growing industries.

Today we have Dove and Dial, Ivory and Irish Springs as well as countless others. Still, how does animal fat and wood ash clean anything?

What are all those little bubbles? Do we even really need soap? Most importantly, can a person actually make soap without ending up in a fetal position with the fire department at the door?

These questions will be answered in the next post.


One thought on “The Origins of Soap I

  1. Pingback: The Origins of Soap: What is Soap? « Eden's Rivers

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