History of Soap & Soap Making
Learning the history of soap, how it was used by ancient civilization, the soap making process then and how we got to where we are today is important for soap makers to truly appreciate the art of soap making and handmade soap. Soap and the process of soap making dates back to ancient Babylon almost 5000 years ago where ancient civilizations then created cleansing products and soap from a simple recipe of alkalis, plant oils and animal fats using the hot process method where ingredients were gathered, added to water to create soap by boiling the mixture. These ancient knowledge and steps of creating soap still remains fundamental till date. Modern soap makers, those making true soap, still uses the same fundamental techniques.
Historical Timeline of Soap & Soap Making
That bar of soap you’re so rigorously scrubbing your hands with multiple times a day is one of the most ancient consumer products you use, with one caveat: A lot of modern soap isn’t soap at all. Real soap is a salt formed when you mix an acid and a base together. This process is called saponification where oils, fats are blended with lye to form soap. Humans have used soap for millennia where earliest evidence of the production of soap-like materials existed around 2800 BC in ancient Babylon.
No one is quite sure when soap was first made, but the earliest recorded evidence of a soap-like creation dates back to almost 5000 years ago where an ancient soap making recipe was discovered on a Babylonian clay tablet (from around 2200 BC) with ingredients for soap using water, alkali (which is a sort of salt base), and cassia oil. The soap was reportedly made by heating the oil and wood ash mixture and used for washing woolen clothing.
According to the Ebers papyrus, an Egyptian medical papyrus of herbal knowledge dating to circa 1550 BC, Egyptians bathed regularly with a soap-like substance made from animal and vegetable oils with a soda ash substance called Trona to create their soap-like material used for treating skin diseases, washing and in the preparation of wool for weaving.
539 – 556 BC
64 – 79 AD
The word ‘sapo’ (Latin for soap) first appears in Historia Naturalis (The Natural History) by Pliny the Elder. The Historia Naturalis is one of the largest single works to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day and purports to cover all ancient knowledge. Pliny the Elder, a commander in the Roman Empire then, wrote about the creation of sapo in his book and discusses the manufacture of soap from tallow and ashes. This ‘soap’ was in fact used as a hair product (pomade) for the men of the Gauls.
Aretaeus of Cappadocia, one of the most celebrated of the ancient Greek physicians, wrote a book in the 2nd century AD, describing the use of soap among “Celts, which are men called Gauls. The soap used then were said to be alkaline substances combined with animal fats that were made into balls called soap.
130 – 210 AD
Galen, a Greek physician in the 2nd-century AD, described soap-making using lye and prescribes washing to carry away impurities from the body and clothes. The use of soap for personal cleanliness became increasingly common in this period. According to Galen, he promoted the use of lye-based soaps to wash the body and clothing and the best soaps were Germanic, and soaps from Gaul were second best. This is a reference to true soap in antiquity.
By the 7th century, soap-making was an established art in Italy, Spain and France. These countries were early centers of soap manufacturing due to their ready supply of source ingredients, such as oil from olive trees. In the eighth century, the lands of Medieval Spain became the leading soap production location where both men and women worked together. Soapmaking is mentioned both as “women’s work” and as the produce of “good workmen” alongside other necessities, such as the produce of carpenters, blacksmiths, and bakers.
854 – 925 AD
Of the physicians who worked in Baghdad during this era, one stands out as quite exceptional, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi. A comprehensive thinker, Razi (also known by his Latinized name Rhazes) was a Persian physician, philosopher and alchemist, widely considered one of the most important figures in the history of medicine. Overall, his many achievements include the industrialization of Soap production due to its value to protect human health. He described a recipe for creating the first Bastille glycerin soap from olive oil using olive oil, lime and an alkali. This soap was later exported from Syria to other parts of the Muslim world and Europe.
1500 – 1600 AD
In France, by the second half of the 15th century, large scale soap production and industrialized professional manufacture of soap opened in Provence—Toulon, Hyères, and Marseille supplying soap to the rest of France. Finer soaps were later produced in Europe from the 16th century, using vegetable oils (such as olive oil) as opposed to animal fats. Many of these soaps are still produced, both industrially and by small-scale artisans. Castile soap is a popular example of the vegetable-only soaps derived from the oldest “white soap” of Italy.
Until the Industrial Revolution, soapmaking was conducted on a small scale and the product was rough. In 1780, James Keir established a chemical works at Tipton, for the manufacture of alkali from the sulfates of potash and soda, to which he afterwards added a soap manufactory. Jame Keir revoluntionized the soap manufacturing process when he created an alkali from the sulfates of potash and soda. The method of extraction made soaps softer and gentler on skin.
With the alkali created by James Keir, Andrew Pears created the world’s first high-quality, transparent soap in 1807. After much trial and error he found a way of removing the impurities and refining the base soap before adding the delicate perfume of garden flowers. His product was a high-quality soap, and had the additional benefit of being transparent. Soap refined in this way is transparent and makes longer-lasting bubbles. The transparency was the unique product plus that established the image of Pears soap. His method of mellowing and ageing each long-lasting Pears Bar, for over two months, is still used today where natural oils and pure glycerine are combined with the delicate fragrance of rosemary, cedar and thyme.
In 1879, James Norris Gamble, son of Procter & Gamble‘s co-founder and a trained chemist, developed an inexpensive white soap which was later named Ivory by Harley Procteras. Ivory soap, one of P&G’s iconic brands and very first products was a soap that floats. In the late 19th century, when people were still bathing in the murky waters of local rivers and streams, a soap that floated was revolutionary.
According to an apocryphal story, later discounted by the company, a worker accidentally left the mixing machine on too long, and the company chose to sell the “ruined” batch because the added air did not change the basic ingredients of the soap. When appreciative letters about the new, floating soap inundated the company, P&G ordered the extended mix time as a standard procedure. However, company records indicate that the design of Ivory did not come about by accident. In 2004, over 100 years later, the P&G company archivist Ed Rider found documentation that revealed that James N. Gamble, who was a chemist, had discovered how to make the soap float and noted the result in his writing.
In the 1880s, William Hesketh Lever, and his brother, James Darcy Lever, bought a small soap works in Warrington in 1886 and founded what is still one of the largest soap businesses, formerly called Lever Brothers and now called Unilever. These soap businesses were among the first to employ large-scale advertising campaigns. The brothers teamed up with a Cumbrian chemist, William Hough Watson, who became an early business partner. Watson invented the process which resulted in a new soap, using glycerin and vegetable oils such as palm oil, rather than tallow. The resulting soap was a good, free-lathering soap, at first named Honey Soap then later named “Sunlight Soap“.
In 1898, B.J Johnson Soap Company introduced Palmolive soap a formula created by the company by combining palm, olive and coconut oils giving it a distinctive green color, unique for its day. The B.J Johnson Soap Company was later renamed Palmolive and in 1923, moved to Chicago where it merged with two more companies to become the Colgate-Palmolive Company. Palmolive products includes soap, dishwashing liquid, shampoo, hair conditioner, body wash and liquid hand-wash.
In 1907, Dr. Otto Rohm, founded the company Röhm & Haas (today Dow Chemical) together with the businessman Otto Haas in Esslingen, Germany. He introduced the use of enzymes for cleaning laundry in 1907 but it was not till 1914 when his research on the technical applications of enzymes in washing detergents was widely adopted. This led to a revolution in the production and in the use of washing detergents around 1914.
1914 – 1918
In 1914, during World War I, there was a shortage of soap due to the increased need for cleaning agents for the injuries of war and shortage of animal and vegetable fats and oils that can be used in making soap. This led to discovery of a non-soap product called synthetic detergents (now known as detergent) by German chemical companies in 1917.
Before the end of World War II, soap was manufactured by a “full-boiled” process or “kettle soap boiling”. This process required mixing fats and oils in large, open heated kettles that were often over three stories high, with caustic soda (NaOH) in the presence of steam. This soap boiling production process took over a week to complete.
In 1932, Procter & Gamble created a manufacturing technique called “continuous process“. Exactly as the name states, in the continuous process soap is produced continuously, rather than one batch at a time. This process decreased soap making production time to less than a day. In the continuous process of soap manufacture, fats and oils react directly with caustic soda. The saponification reaction is accelerated by being run at high temperatures (248°F; 120°C) and pressures (2 atm)and allows for the extraction of glycerin after centrifugation and neutralization. Glycerin removed were then used in other higher priced products like the moisturizers and creams. Removing the natural glycerin also extends the shelf life of the soap so that it can sit in the storehouse or on store shelves for many years.
Since then, large scale soap production companies like Zest, Dove, Dial, Johnson & Johnson started commercially manufactured “soap” from inexpensive detergents and no longer contain one of the main and most beneficial ingredients in soap, Glycerin, which is extracted during manufacturing and used in other products.
Almost all commercial bought “soaps” today are made from the same, inexpensive synthetic compounds and chemicals made with petroleum by-products. Detergents are synthetic products, and some may have a negative effect on the environment.
With consumers becoming more educated about product ingredients and environmental protection, they are now seeking detergent-free and potentially harmful chemical-free options, which have created a resurgent in the number of small soap making businesses, also known as artisanal soaps.
Image credit: Swift & Company (Fort Worth, Texas), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons