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The History of Soap

Early “soaps”

The history of soap is fascinating; it’s such a commonly-used commodity to us, but documented evidence suggests it hasn’t actually been used for that long.

We know that in ancient times, soap- like substances were made in the area we now call the Middle East. There are instructions for making different kinds of soap carved onto Sumerian clay tablets, found in what is now part of Iraq, so we know the Sumerians were using soap solutions around 3000BC.

There is a widely-held belief that soap, made from boiled animal fats & wood ashes, was being used by the Babylonians as early as 2800BC. Around 600BC, the sea-going Phoenicians used a substance similar to modern soap, made from boiled goat fat, water & plant ashes. They were a great trading race, & spread their version of soap throughout their trade routes- including selling it to the Romans, Greeks & Gauls.

The ancient Greeks used perfumed oils for bathing, anointing their bodies with perfumed olive oil into which they rubbed wood ash or clay powder. They then used an implement called a strigil to scrape the residue off their skin. This practice was common amongst young athletes & gladiators, and in bath-houses prior to bathing. Strigils have been excavated from numerous Greek and Roman sites throughout the Mediterranean.

The Origins of Soap?

Legend says that soap was first discovered in Rome, where women washed clothing in the streams at the foot of Mount Sapo, a fictional mountain supposedly located somewhere near Rome (but which has never been found). The water running down the hill contained the fats & wood ash from animal sacrifices which took place at the top of the hill, & the women noticed their laundry washed better here. Although this explanation seems to reasonably explain the discovery of soap, the amount of fat the Romans burned in animal sacrifices would be insufficient to produce a lathering soap.

An alternative suggestion is that the Romans learnt the art of soap-making from the Ancient Celts, who made a simple soap using plant ashes & animal fats, which they called “saipo”, for making their hair red. It was made from tallow and ashes, with the best quality saipo coming from Beechwood ash and goat fat. Pliny the Elder in the first century AD described a soft kind of soap made by the Gaul, - ”an invention of the Gauls for giving a reddish tint to the hair”-  but historians think that this was pomade (for the hair) made from un-saponified fat and alkali, rather than a soap for personal hygiene. 

Although the exact history of soap isn’t clear, and whichever legend you choose to believe, the etymology of soap is fairly straightforward; it comes either from a Gaulish word saipo- or a Germanic word saipa-. Both of these words are derived from the Latin sebum, meaning "fat" or "tallow."

Soap Through the Ages

We’ve just mentioned that soaps weren’t in use in early Roman baths. A plethora of modern writings suggests there is evidence of what might have been a soap- making factory discovered at Pompeii (buried by a volcanic eruption in 79AD). It may be that this was a factory for making a crude soap or Fuller’s Earth for cleaning & laundering, but there is no scientific evidence to support this interpretation.

Strigils & oil flask

The first written mention of soap as a shampoo was by a physician called Priscianus, around 385AD, who mentioned the trade of “saponarius” or soap- boiler.

Little is known about the use of soap during the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire. Trade routes between Europe & the Mediterranean region continued, and it’s likely that commodities such as soap continued to be manufactured & traded. Aleppo soap is an example; manufactured in the ancient city of Aleppo, in what is now Syria. Aleppo has been continuously inhabited for over 8,000 years, & thrived on trade, being the land bridge between East and West at the end of the Silk Road. Aleppo soap has been prized for thousands of years, & it’s still produced today as a pure & basic soap made from olive oil, sweet bay oil, water & sodium hydroxide. The earliest written mention is from the 8th Century AD, & it was a sought-after commodity at the time of the Crusades in the 11th Century AD.

Following the Crusades, Aleppo soap became popular in Europe, & then began being manufactured in local Mediterranean areas with the arrival of Muslim soap-makers to Spain and Italy during the 12th Century. This spread into an organised industry, with early centres of production at Marsailles, Savona, Genoa & Naples.

Made from olive oil which was abundant in Mediterranean regions, one region’s soap became known s a high quality soap which was hard, pure white, mild and gentle. This was Castile soap. Originally an important product for the Castile region of Spain, the name became synonymous with the type of soap rather than the region. It’s still highly regarded today.

British Soap-making

In Britain, the monk Richard of Devizes referred in 1192 to the number of soapmakers in Bristol. Early production of British soap was usually based on animal fat such as tallow, although imported oils such as palm, olive, coconut, linseed & cottonseed through ports like Bristol & London could have been used. This suggests the reason for soapmaking being favoured in these areas. In the 15th Century there were “sopehouses” in London at Bishopsgate, Cheapside, & Blackfriars. In Bristol, a type of black soap called “Bristol soap” and a hard soap called “Bristol grey” were manufactured.

Soap became sought-after, recipes were closely guarded by the makers, & soaps began being taxed heavily, resulting in limits on production capacity, and with production being limited to certain geographical areas. Effectively, a monopoly on soap-making began in the 17th Century. Soap taxes rose, & by the early 18th Century, soapmaking pans were required to be fitted with a padlock, with the key held by the excise man (taxman).

As the Victorians’ concern with cleanliness grew, soap became more popular. The taxes became increasingly unpopular, & eventually- in 1852- Gladstone’s government ceased charging soap duty.

From the early 17th Century, the Industrial Revolution & a greater understanding of the chemistry involved in soap-making lead to greater efficiency in manufacturing, with higher grade, fragranced & milder soaps being produced.

In 1789, a Cornish barber named Andrew Pears opened a shop in Soho, selling a purer, gentler soap for delicate upper-class complexions. This soap is still produced today, essentially unchanged. His business partner & brother-in-law, Thomas Barrett, was a pioneer of modern advertising & marketing, & the Pears promotional poster “Bubbles” became the most famous poster in the country.

In the 1880’s, Victorian chemist William Lever began making Sunlight Soap, using vegetable oils. This was a good-quality soap which lathered well, & proved very popular. He went on to manufacture other household names like Lifebuoy Soap, Lux & Vim.

Modern Soaps

Modern soap-making is now very commercial, with many large factories manufacturing huge quantities of chemical-laden soaps. There is resurgence in demand for purer, gentler soaps, & people like to know what they’re putting on their skin. Hence the growing popularity of traditional small-scale soap-makers like Sapooni.

Archaeologist investigating one of the tanks in the Pompeii “soap factory”