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The first recorded accounts of soap were on Sumerian clay tablets dating back to 2500 B.C. At  that time in history soap was used in the washing of wool. One Sumerian tablet, describes soap made from water, alkali, and cassia oil. Historical evidence shows that Egyptians bathed regularly and that they combined animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to create a soap like substance for washing.  It is well known that Cleopatra, who captivated the leaders of the Roman world, attributed her beauty to her  baths in mare’s milk.  Ancient Rome gave soap it’s familiar name.  They were well known for their public baths, generally soap was not used for personal cleaning.  To clean the body the Greeks and then the Romans would rub the body with olive oil and sand.  A scraper, called a strigil, was then used to scrape off the sand and olive oil also removing dirt, grease, and dead cells from the skin leaving it clean.  Afterwards the skin was rubbed down with salves prepared from herbs.

Soap was also used by physicians in the treatment of disease.  Galen, a 2nd century physician, recommended bathing with soap would be beneficial for some skin conditions.  Soap for personal washing became popular during the later centuries of the Roman era.  Animals were sacrificed on Mount Sapo, a religious site for early Romans.  As rain washed a mixture of melted animal fats and wood ashes down into the Tiber River below, it was discovered that the soapy mixture was useful for washing cloths as well as people. The Roman baths were built around 312 B.C. They were luxurious and popular. It is believed that the Romans acquired the knowledge of soap from the Gauls. Today Gaul is known as France were French milled soap still receives a premium price.  Pliny, the Roman historian, described soap being made from goat’s tallow and caustic zed wood ashes. He also wrote of common salt being added to make the soap hard. The ruins at Pompeii revealed a soap factory complete with finished bars.

The Celtic peoples are also thought by some historians to have discovered soap making and were using it for bathing and washing. Maybe do to increased contact with the Celtics by the Romans, using soap for personal washing care became popular.

There is an interesting legend surrounding the discovery of soap making. This legend accords the discovery of soap to the Romans so it must be a Roman legend to confront the Celtic claim to soap making. Probably both of these inventive peoples discovered soap making independently. The legend says soap was first discovered by women washing clothes along the Tiber River at the bottom of Sapo Hill.  The women noticed the clothes became cleaner with far less effort at that particular location. What was happening?  The ashes and the grease of animals from the sacrificial fires of the temples situated on the top of Sapo Hill mixed with the rain, making soap which ran down the slope in the streams of rain water giving the women a wash day bonus. You can see at a glance saponification, the chemical name for the soap making reaction, bears the name of that hill in Rome long ago, which caused one Roman washer women to comment to another, “My wash is cleaner than yours”.

The European Dark Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, there was little soap making done or use of it in the European Dark Ages. In the Byzantine Empire, the remains of the Roman world in the eastern Mediterranean area, and in the expanding Arab world soap was made and used. Around the 8th century soap making was revived in Italy and Spain. By the 13th century, France also became a producer of soap for the European market.

This is when the history of soap making becomes more concrete. Marseilles emerged as the first great center of soap making and remained an important producer through the Middle Ages. Genoa, Venice, and Bari in Italy came to rival it, as did Castila in Spain. Each of these regions had a plentiful supply of olive oil and barilla (a fleshy plant whose ashes were used to make lye). This formulation became the standard through the 17th century. During the 14th century, soap making was started in England.

Soaps produced in the south of Europe, Italy, Spain, and the southern ports of France (Marseilles and Castle soaps) were made from olive oils. These soaps made using olive oils were of a higher quality than those made by the soap producers of England and northern France. These northern soap makers, not being able to obtain the olive oil, made their soaps with only animal fats. Tallow, the fat from cattle, was the chief fat used. Northern European soap makers even resorted to making soap from fish oils. Soaps made from the poor quality animals fats and oils, while adequate for laundry and textile usage, were not desirable for bathing and washing. The soap from southern Europe with their olive oils were superior. This resulted in a lively trade of exporting fine soaps from southern Europe.

It is a popular misconception that people did not take baths in the Middle Ages.. There were public bath houses, called stews, where the patrons bathe in large wooden tubs and were given bars of soap to use. Nobles and rich merchants had their own private baths. It was later when bathing was thought to  promote  the spread of the Plague.  In general, people of the Renaissance moved away from the idea of keeping the body clean. They preferred to cover the body with heavy scents.

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  • Danielle Lasit