The Origins of Soap
Where did soap come from?
Its’ been a little over a year since I started making soap. Never did I think about the origins of soap or Soapmaking. So today I decided to look it up. Interestingly enough the earliest evidence was found in ancient Babylon, around 2800 B.C. What was found, exactly? A recipe, written on a clay tablet dated around 2200 B.C. It was made up of water, alkali and Cassia oils, very similar to how handmade soaps are made today.
As I continued searching the origins of Soapmaking I quickly realized that evidence can be found in texts and writings from all over the world. And so, here’s a time lined-history tour of what I learned.
· Egypt 1550 BC, The Ebers Papyrus, is a scroll which is actually a complete medical text that survived from ancient Egypt. It contains many “secrets” on treating several medical conditions and diseases. It also discussed the regular bathing practices of Egyptians’ and the combinations of animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts, which created a soap-like material they used.
· Roman Empire, Historia Naturalis by Pliny the Elder 77-79 AD: It is a book of knowledge of the “natural world, or life”. It is divided into 37 books that are organized in 10 volumes. In this plethora of knowledge includes the making of soap from tallow (animal fat) and ashes.
· Middle East 8th – 14th century: during the Islamic Golden Age a well-established Soapmaking industry developed and flourished. It is from here that the world renowned “Aleppo” was made, continues to be produced today.
· Italy & Spain: by the 8th century Soapmaking was well known.
· France 15th century: by this time a semi-industrialized professional manufacturing industry was relegated to a few select areas.
· Europe 16th century: soaps of finer quality were being produced using vegetable oils, such as Olive oil. The home of “Castile” soap.
Things seem to get really interesting during the 18th century (1700’s – 1800’s). In Europe and America a relationship between cleanliness and health was established and promoted. The use of soap became commonplace based on a better understanding of hygiene and the reduction of germs in an industrialized nation.
· 20th century (1900 – 2000): Soapmaking was conducted on a small scale, the quality was a bit rough. However, in 1780 a chemical created by James Keir that changed the game. In 1807, Andrew Pears took that and created a high-quality transparent soap in London.
· Until the mid-1800’s soap was considered a luxury. Solely to be used by the rich and powerful in England.
· 1850’s: William Gossage is credited for creating a lower-priced, good quality soap.
· 1886: William Lever and his brother purchased a small soap shop in England. Founding what’s now known as Unilever – one of the largest name brands of soap manufacturers. In 2017 their reported 6.486 billion in revenue.
Today hobby and start-up soaping businesses are very popular, in part because of the potential harmful ingredients found in commercial soaps. So, there it is folks, a rundown of the origins of soap and Soapmaking.