The history of soap is nearly as long as that of human civilization itself. It took people centuries to learn and uncover the many uses of soap and perfect the process of making it.
After all, for soap to exist some daring inventor first had to realize that mixing fatty substances with ashes would make a new substance that is itself really great at washing away – wait for it – fatty substances and ashes. This is counterintuitive, to say the least. But human ingenuity knows no bounds and observational skills and experimentation led to developments.
The Ancient Babylonians
Some five thousand years ago, the Ancient Babylonians used the first soap that we know of. How did we learn such a fact? An engraved urn was found during an archaeological dig. This urn is lined with traces of a combination of fats and ashes – the most basic building blocks of soap – and dates back to 2800 BCE. People have been making soap for some time as this evidence shows. But this is just one piece of the archaeological record.
The Ancient Chinese
There is evidence that Ancient China, around 1300 BCE, made and used soaps as well. A bronze vat was found with traces of what could be soap material in it during an archaeological dig in China. It is unknown if this soap was used for personal use or more for manufacturing.
The Ancient Egyptians
An Ancient Egyptian papyrus – the Ebers Papyrus – dates from over a millennium after the Babylonian urn. This medical treatise detailed how to make a soaplike substance for cleansing and medicinal use. This is the first recorded use suggesting that soap be used on the human body for any purpose.
The Ancient Greeks
Around 200 CE, an Ancient Greek physician named Galen described soap as well. He recommended soap from Germany or France to wash away impurities on the body and in clothing. It was prescribed for medicinal purposes, as well.
The Ancient Romans
In fact, the original use of soap was not to leave the human body smelling fresh. The first soaps were most likely used to cleanse clothing more so than the human bodies that worse those clothes. Other methods were used to clean human skin. In Ancient Rome, for instance, the body was cleaned with oils and a strigil, a curved tool to scrape the dirt away. Baths in cold and hot water washed away the impurities.
Soap for Textile Manufacturing
But wool, on the other hand, needed something like soap to clean the oils out of it before it could be dyed, so soaps were used. Soap molecules act by attracting oils and fats to one end and water to the other. One end is hydrophobic and the other hydrophilic. As a result of this process, the sebaceous substance (like lanolin for example) is diluted into the water and then easily washed away with more water. A Sumerian tablet from 2500 BCE is the first written mention of soap, and it only mentions it in reference to the washing of wool – not the wearers of wool.
The first soaps were made from a combination of fats or oils, like tallow, and an alkali element, like ashes. (It is not so hard to imagine, then, why people were not especially interested in rubbing this smelly substance all over their bodies. You might smell sweeter using plain old water.)
The Ancient Arabs
It was the Arabs who first experimented with soaps that smell pleasant in the seventh century CE. Nabulsi soap was made using olive oil, which is an unscented Castile soap. (That is a soap made in the Castilian fashion.) Aleppo soap is similar but adds in the ingredient of bay laurel leaves. Arabic experimentation lead to a variety of soaps with scented ingredients, like rosemary and lavender, and soap with dedicated purposes, like one especially dedicated to shaving.
Soap in Europe
Soaps in Europe at that time were made either from animal fats, like the tallow made from goats, or vegetable substances, like olive oil. Marseilles, France and Savona, Italy were soap-making centers in Europe.
In the 12th century CE, soap production began in earnest in England. But the soap itself was a heavily taxed item, a true luxury, and was out of reach for the average consumer.
Thanks to the continued tax precious soap was not commonly used by regular folks for bathing even though scientific advances had made its manufacture easier. Discoveries by Nicolas LeBlanc and Michel Eugene Chevreul made the making of soap easier and cheaper. Understanding the process of using salts and fats made soap a regular commodity.
In 1853, the punitive British tax on soap was abolished. The government lost out on a sizeable source of income, – apparently over the equivalent of $100 million a year. But now, mercifully, the common English citizen was now able to afford soap for home use. Bathing increased in popularity as a result.
Soap in the United States
The popularity of soap only increased from that moment. The United States became a major soap manufacturing power in the 19th century. For instance, in 1806, William Colgate opened a starch, candle, and soap store in New York City after emigrating from England. In the 1840s, Colgate introduced a soap cake of uniform size and weight to sell to the consumer. (Other innovations, like the scented soap Cashmere Bouquet, were yet to come.) Sales of this predictable and useful soap boomed.
At the same time, the B.J. Johnson Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin had created their own proprietary soap made of palm oil and olive oil towards the end of the 19th century. The company took on the name of the product – Palmolive – and it became a bestseller. (Even ancient methods have modern applications, as is apparent.) These two soap-making companies would later merge to form the household cleansing product giant known as Colgate-Palmolive. (Toothpaste came after soap – people have their priorities, it seems.)
Procter and Gamble was founded by brothers-in-law who married sisters. (William Procter was born in England, and James Gamble hailed from Northern Ireland.) In the 1850s, their business blossomed and they won a contract to supply the Union Army with candles and soap. In the 1880s, they developed their famous floating soap bar, Ivory. (This invention apparently arose from a happy industrial accident. A worker left a machine on too long and the bars were filled with more air bubbles than intended, leading to the floating feature.)
The scarcity of materials needed to make soap during World War I lead to new innovations. Detergents act much like a soap but do not leave the infamous soap scum behind. German scientists perfected a process that used synthetic and petroleum elements to make cleansing agents – that is, detergents – to replace the soaps that were so very hard to come by during the time of war. Although the two – soaps and detergents – may act the same to clean you and your clothes and home, their compsition is different. Soaps are, in fact, made of all natural ingredients. Detergents are composed of various synthetic elements. (Ever notice how your favorite body wash or liquid hand wash is labeled as something other than “soap”? There is a legal reason behind that.)
Soap making has become a popular hobby now that people have learned the importance of natural ingredients. Fewer people are willing to use synthetic cleansing agents – that is, detergents. Making your own soap is a hobby that combines elements of chemistry, gastronomy, and art to create cleansing bars that are effective, pleasant, and beautiful.