When you consider how indispensable soap is to human existence it really is one of those everyday things we take for granted. There it is, on the shelf, different shapes, different sizes, different colours and different smells. Scratch beneath the surface of soap (and I don’t mean that particular bar you’re using right now) and you uncover all sorts of fascinating theories and facts and realise how much social, political, industrial and economic influences have played a part in the evolution of the humble bar of soap (link to the shop).
The earliest known civilisation to use written text – the Sumerians – makes reference to the use of a mixture of ash and water to clean grease from clothes and for ritual cleansing of the body for religious ceremonies around 3,000 bc. In all liklihood then, these texts are the first recordings of a form of soap being used for cleaning ‘by proxy’ (ie. the action of the lye water reacting with the grease during washing created a basic form of soap). No-one really knows which people started manufacturing soap or even where. The earliest written record dates back to Babylon around 2000 bc with archaeological evidence for soap manufacture dating back at least 500 years before that. The Babylonian reference makes mention of the basic constituents required to make soap – water, an alkali and fat – in this case, cassia oil (oil extracted from the leaves, twigs and bark of the Cassia Bark tree). One particular legend for the provenance of soap has it that Romans would notice how much easier it was to clean garments on the banks of the River Tiber in sight of Mount Sapo after animals had been sacrificed on the mount. The idea here being that the rendered animal fat, mixed with the ash from the fire produced a basic soap after being washed down the mountain side on rainy days.
With there being reliable references to soap manufacture that pre-date the Romans and, through the historical and archaeological record we know that Romans preferred to use oils and scrape dirt from the skin with an implement called a strigil, it is pretty safe to dismiss this particular story. But hang on, let’s not throw out that (clean) baby with the bath water! I like the idea that our early ancestors might have stumbled upon soap through repeated pagan sacrifice on the same spritual, high ground or perhaps, the residue left in a fire’s ashes after a meaty feast when water was thrown over it to put it out. They revered high ground for spiritual and defensive needs; waterways, springs and other water sources as a giver of life and the gateway between their world and the underworld. Clearly, many ancient settlements had the potential for soap to be made by chance. All that was needed was for someone to have that Eureka! moment.
In terms of European manufacturing history Marseilles became the leading centre for soap manufacture by the 8th century. Why Marseilles? Simply, as with other major manufacturing sites that spring up rapidly (Sheffield Steel comes to mind), it was located close to the raw materials – olive groves (olive oil), Barilla plants (ash) and was and still is a major commercial port (transport) with good access to the Mediterranean and North West Europe. Marseille’s success soon spread to Spain and Italy not least because raw materials were consumed at such a rate they had to be sourced further and further afield. In all liklihood, at some point, out of economic necessity, it became more viable for manufacturers to set up subsidiary businesses where these raw materials were located than to import them back to their original manufacturing sites. Castile in Spain, home of the famous all-olive oil soap, became a major soap producing centre to rival Marseilles.
It is unclear when soap manufacture first hit Britain’s shores but there is a suggestion that the Gauls may have been the first people to pass the knowledge on via well-established trade routes. In medieval times soap was primarily used for the cloth industry and not for personal hygiene with cities such as Coventry, London and Bristol becoming relatively large centres of manufacture by the thirteenth century. The process for soap manufacture remained the same up until the 17th century – ie. the boiling of animal fats or olive oil with potash and lime. It was only when manufacturers made a determined effort to understand the chemistry of soap production and refine the raw materials allied with changes in legislation (e.g. the repeal of the Soap Tax in 1853) and industrialisation do we see the mass production of soap and an explosion of the varieties of soap available from just 3 around 1700 (coarse soap – made from whale blubber, sweet soap – olive oil, and speckled soap – tallow) to over 50 by the late 1800s.
Mass Production – Over Refinement – Regression?
With the onset of the industrial revolution people deserted the countryside and flocked to urban centres in search of employment and a better economic status creating the earliest ‘mass markets’ that were readily exploited by the industrialists including rapidly flourishing soap manufacturers like the Lever Brothers. Standard bars of mass-produced soap haven’t really changed since the late 1800s. Glycerin, a bi-product of the manufacturing process and a wonderful moisturiser, is still removed because it has more commercial value as an additive in a host of other products such as lotions, creams and yes, nitro-glycerine for dynamite! Where ‘advancements’ have been made since the early 1900s is in the development of synthetic chemicals, parabens and additives that have enabled further economies of scale and longer shelf lives but, as the old adage says: ‘you gets what you pays for. Most commercial soaps on the shop shelf are typically made up of 80% tallow or rendered animal fats and 20% vegetable oil and unfortunately our early experiences of these soaps (everyone can remember lathering up with a bar and feeling their skin stripped of sebum – their skin’s natural oil) tends to cloud our judgement of soap into adulthood. Nowadays, soap recipes are developed and nurtured by ‘soapers’ like us that not only cleanse but replenish the skin with much-needed nutrients and essences with known therapeutic benefits.