The History of Soap: Origins and Facts You’re Wondering About

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Soap has been around in one form or another for centuries. What makes soap such a great cleansing agent is its chemical formula that allows particles to be isolated from an object and easily washed away with water.

Its versatile nature makes soap ideal for washing, bathing and cleansing both objects and the body. Throughout time soap has moved from a more utilitarian compound to something that is scented and used as a cosmetic.

Here we’ll cover the history of soap and how it developed into the substance commonly used today.

roman images of soap illustration

The first uses of soap supposedly go back to the ancient times of Babylon and Egypt. Soap formulas differed but were generally made up of a mixture of fat or oil, water, and an alkali, or basic salt. Soap was believed to be commonly practiced for personal cleanliness and to wash garments.

The History of Soap

A formula for soap consisting of water, alkali and cassia oil was written on a Babylonian clay tablet around 2200 B.C. This, along with the excavation of soap-like substances from Babylonian archeological sites leads experts to believe soap-making was commonly practiced in the ancient world.

However, the Babylonians weren’t the only ancient soap makers. Ancient Egyptians were incredibly advanced in personal hygiene and would combine animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to create a soap-like cleansing agent. They also used it ritualistically to purify the body and clothes.

Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting soap usage

How Was Soap First Discovered?

While nobody knows exactly how soap was first discovered, one ancient Roman story claims that soap was named after a discovery at Mount Sapo, a likely-fictitious mountain described in the tale.

According to the legend, Romans would sacrifice animals on the mountain and during heavy rains, a mix of animal fat and ash would wash down into the river below. Locals started to notice that after a long rain, the items they washed in the river became much cleaner. This led to the discovery of soap.

While the legend makes for a good story, there is no evidence of a Mount Sapo in the area the Roman Empire occupied. Though the story may be fictional, the method of discovery described could have some truth to it.

egyptian imagery illustrated

The Modernization of Soap

Since bathing became less of a priority after the fall of the Roman Empire in 467 A.D., soap was mainly used to clean cooking utensils and other items. This lack of personal hygiene likely contributed to the rampant illness and plagues of the Dark Ages.

Around the seventh century A.D., soap made a comeback, starting in Spain and Italy. Royals and those who could afford it began using soap for bathing and personal hygiene more regularly. Soap makers began to perfect their recipes and soap became a coveted commodity.

It was around this time that fragrances were introduced to soap and specialized soaps were created for bathing, shampooing, shaving and laundry.

As soap became more popular, it also became more widely available to the masses. Household instruction manuals from the 1500s talk about soap and include recipes for making soap. By the 18th century, bathing regularly had come into fashion.

people using soap in the Tudor time period

How Was Soap Made?

Soap has been made many different ways over the years. In the early days, soap was made using basic supplies taken from animals and nature. For example, many people would mix fatty substances with an alkali (such as ashes or lye).

In the early days of soap making, people used the hot process, which included heating oils and lye to begin saponification. As knowledge of chemistry improved, many people started using the cold processing method, which includes mixing lye with fat or oil without the use of heat.

imagery of using science for modern soap making illustration

Scented Soap Modern Soap

In the 15th century, it became common to use vegetable oils to make soap, rather than animal fats. Since these soaps were easier and safer to make, people began making artisan soaps that were scented with flowers, oils and other fragrances.

In the 1700’s Nicolas Leblanc pioneered a process for transforming sodium chloride (salt) into an alkaline substance that was critical in the manufacturing of soap.

As Europeans realized that good personal hygiene would reduce the spread of diseases, the demand for soap increased. During World War I, soap was needed to help clean wounds and injuries, but the ingredients used to make it were still scarce.

To solve this problem, German scientists create a new kind of soap that was made with petroleum byproducts and was easy to mass-produce. These new soaps were actually detergents, which is what many “soaps” on the market are today.

Commercial soap makers would manufacture soap and detergent in huge, three-story kettles that produced thousands of pounds each week. As production time decreased, so did the cost. Bar soaps, liquid hand soaps, scented cosmetic soaps and more became available and are still common today.

an old photo of a soap factory

What Are the Types of Soap?

There are many types of soap available today. There are hard and soft soaps, detergents, natural soaps and chemically-produced soaps. Here are just a few:

  • Kitchen Soaps: Kitchen cleansers are typically made with mild abrasives and are used to remove heavy oil or other soil from dishes and other cooking utensils. Kitchen detergents are made with stronger ingredients and are made to release solid dirt particles from kitchen items.
  • Laundry Soaps: These are made to remove grease, solid particles and other spills from clothes. They can come in gel, liquid or powder forms.
  • Cleaning Soaps: These soaps vary greatly and have a wide variety of different formulations. They are typically created to clean grease and soil from different surfaces around the home. These are different from cleaning chemicals one might find around the house, like bleach or ammonia.
  • Personal Soaps: This type of soap is gentle and is formulated for use on the body with personal hygiene in mind. Antibacterial soap, body wash and shampoo all fall into this category.
  • Novelty and Perfumed Soaps: These types of soaps are made to either include some sort of special scent, cosmetic element or formulated in a particular shape for amusement or enjoyment. This category includes beauty soaps that feature special oil blends or added anti-aging ingredients as well.

modern day soap usage illustrated

Soap Facts

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention some fun soap facts to accompany this history of soap. Here are a few fun facts about soap:

  • In 1865, American-born William Sheppard received a patent for the first liquid soap. This soap was mainly used in public places where hygiene was important, such as hospitals and commercial kitchens.
  • Proctor and Gamble was one of the first soap companies to advertise soap on the radio to housewives. These radio broadcasts were called “soap operas” and eventually were broadcast on television. These types of daytime dramas are still called “soaps” to this day.
  • The most expensive soap in the world costs $2,800 and is produced by a family-run business in Lebanon. This soap is infused with gold and diamond powder.

Now that you know the history of soap, you may feel inspired to make your own! If you’d rather buy it pre-made, shop our perfumed soaps that complement your favorite perfume.

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