A Brief History of Soap

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No one knows exactly when soap was discovered, and there are a few urban myths about it, one of which is that soap got its named from the ancient Roman legend of Mount Sapo. This as the story goes is where the animals were sacrificed to the then worshipped gods. The legend states that rain washed a mixture of melted animal fat, (tallow), and wood ashes down into the clay soil along the Tiber River and that the local women found that this clay mixture made washing cleaner and with much less effort. Thus soap was born.  However this myth has a few flaws given there is no mention of this in classical mythology or ant reference an area called Mount Sapo in Ancient Roman texts or in current Italian geography. Further given the Romans were too frugal to burn anything of value as a sacrifice, normally only offering the bones and other inedible parts to their gods it seems unlikely that enough fat would have been available to produce any meaningful soap

What is known though is that people have washed since pre-historic times, with the earliest people probably just washing the mud off with water, and there are some references to washing in the ancient Hindu texts. The earliest semi reliable records show a type of soap was available in Babylon around 2800 B.C and a medical document written on a Babylonian clay tablet some time around 2200 BC is known, which shows a formula for soap, consisting of water, alkali and cassia oil, .

Fast forward to Egypt, about 1550 B.C., and the Ebers Papyrus describes the combining of animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to form a soap-like material used for treating skin diseases, and cleaning wool. It is not clear if they used it for washing but as bathing was a popular at the time it could be assumed it was.

Other Ancient writings also suggest it was known to the Phoenicians (who were maritime people based around Lebanon & Syria) as early as around 600 B.C, although being trading people they most probably acquired the knowledge or possibly even the product from their travels.

Unfortunately despite their sophistication in other matters no one thought to tell the early Greeks about this, who around this time continued with the rather painful sounding process of rubbing themselves clean with blocks made of clay, sand, pumice and ashes. They then anointed themselves with oil, and scraped off the oil and any remaining dirt with a metal instrument known as a strigil. This was not without risks and who knows maybe Archimedes legendary jump out of the bath shouting Eureka had more to do with a slipped Strigil than a sudden brain wave. The Greeks can of course be credited with the early introduction of exfoliation though. For them to catch up we have to Fast forward to the second century A.D, when the Greek physician, Galen, recommended soap for both medical and cleansing purposes.

Soap making was an established craft in Europe and the Middle East by the Seventh century and the various soap makers guilds guarded their trade secrets closely. Vegetable and animal oils were used together with the ashes of plants, and naturally occurring fragrances. These were the forerunners of modern soap wand some of the best and most highly prized were produced in Nablus (West Bank, Palestine), Kufa (Iraq) and Basra (Iraq). These soaps were both perfumed and coloured, and some of the soaps were also in liquid form. They even had a special soap for shaving with, which was sold commercially for 3 Dirhams (0.3 Dinars) for a piece in 981AD.

Soap making even captured the interest of some of the most talented scientists of the era, with the famed Persian Professor Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzīv’s including a recipe for soap in one of his manuscripts.

Gradually more varieties of soap became available including bars aimed at shampooing, as opposed to bathing and laundering, and as its popularity increased, Italy, Spain and France became important early centres of manufacturing, largely due to their ready supply of raw materials such as olive oil.

During the 12th century there was a small but thriving English soap making industry, but by Middle Ages for some reason fell out of favour, and the population stopped washing.  This lack of personal cleanliness and related unsanitary living conditions contributed heavily to the great plagues of the times, especially to the Black Death of the 14th Century. It would be another 300 years or so before cleanliness again became popular.

Fast forward to the early 17th Century and cleanliness and bathing were back in fashion throughout much of Europe, and the soap business became so good that in 1622, King James 1st took the unusual step of swelling the royal coffers by granted monopoly rights to a soap maker for the reputed sum of £100,000 a year.

Around this time the British even began to educate the Americans about the joy of soap and several English soap makers were aboard the second ship to arrive at Jamestown in 1608. 

Throughout this time period soap was also a nice little earner for the state, being heavily taxed as a luxury item,’ a trend which continued right up to the mid 19th century. Fortunately when this tax was removed soap become available to the lower income people, and the resulting rise in cleanliness standards let to a general improvement in health. This cheaper access to soap was given a major boost in 1791 when a French chemist, Nicholas Leblanc, patented a process for making soda ash, or sodium carbonate, from common salt. This Leblanc process yielded quantities of good quality, inexpensive soda ash and suddenly large-scale commercial soap making became viable. Suddenly soap was available to the masses.  

 The science of modern soap making was born some 20 years later when Michel Eugene Chevreul, another French chemist, discovered the chemical nature and relationship of fats, glycerine and fatty acids; studies which established the basis for both fat and soap chemistry.

Soap making technology continued to grow on the back of booming demand and it took another leap forward in the mid-1800’s thanks to Belgian chemist, Ernest Solvay, who developed what became known as the ammonia process, which although using the same basic ingredient, common table salt, or sodium chloride, made the process even cheaper while increasing the quality and quantity of the soda ash.

These scientific discoveries, together with the development of reliable power to operate factories, meant that by 1850 soap making had become worldwide and at the time was one of America's fastest-growing industries. Around this time Soap finally made the move from a semi luxury item to an everyday necessity.


With the use of soap being more widespread manufacturers were encouraged to develop of milder soaps for bathing and specialist soaps for other purposes, including those designed for use in washing machines, that were becoming available to consumers by the turn of the 20th century.


The chemistry of soap manufacturing stayed essentially the same until 1916, when the first synthetic detergent was developed in Germany, largely in response to a World War I related shortage of fats for traditional soap making. Known today simply as detergents, synthetic detergents are non-soap washing and cleaning products that are "synthesized" or put together chemically from a variety of raw materials. The discovery of detergents was also driven by the need for a cleaning agent that, unlike soap, would not combine with the mineral salts in water to form an insoluble substance known as soap curd.
Household detergent production in the United States began in the early 1930s, but did not really take off until World War II. The war-time interruption of fat and oil supplies as well as the military's need for a cleaning agent that would work in both mineral-rich sea water and in cold water further stimulated research on detergents.

Although these first synthetic detergents were used chiefly for hand dishwashing and fine fabric laundering it was not long before the all-purpose laundry product arrived. This hit the US market in 1946, and was the first "built" detergent (containing a surfactant/builder combination). The surfactant being the detergent product's basic cleaning ingredient, while the builders Phosphate compounds vastly improved performance, making it suitable for cleaning heavily soiled laundry.

By 1953, sales of detergents had surpassed those of traditional soap, and today detergents have all but replaced soap-based products for laundering, dishwashing and household cleaning. Detergents (alone or in combination with soap) are also found in many of the mass produced bar and liquid personal care soaps used today.

Since those early achievements in detergent and builder chemistry, new product activity has continued to focus on developing cleaning products that are cost effective and efficient, with consumer and environmental impacts being a somewhat secondary consideration. However with the rise in consumer awareness of these issues, things are beginning to change, and traditional and more environmentally friendly soaps and detergents are now in vogue.


Below is a brief timeline summary of some of the main post WW2 innovations in the soap and detergent market:

Automatic dishwasher powders
Liquid laundry, hand dishwashing and all-purpose cleaning products
Fabric softeners (rinse-cycle added)
Detergent with oxygen bleach

Prewash soil and stain removers
Laundry powders with enzymes
Enzyme pre-soaks

Liquid hand soaps
Fabric softeners (sheets and wash-cycle added)
Multifunctional products (e.g., detergent with fabric softener)

Detergents for cooler water washing
Automatic dishwasher liquids
Concentrated laundry powders

Ultra (super concentrated) powder and liquid detergents
Ultra fabric softeners
Automatic dishwasher gels
Laundry and cleaning product refill packs



The rise of gentler more natural surfactants.

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