LOOSELY DEFINED, SOAP IS a substance that when used with with
water, decreases surface tension in an effort to attract away unwanted
Even in its most archaic form, soap has probably always played a role
in human history. Before soap became an intentionally produced product,
it was extracted from plants like yucca, soapwort, and horsetail. The
need for a substance to help remove dirt, grease, foodstuffs, pitches,
bodily excretions, etc., has always been a part of the human
The first known written mention of soap was on Sumerian clay tablets
dating about 2500 B.C. The tablets spoke of the use of soap in washing
wool. Another 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
soaplike substance for washing.
Ancient Roman legend gives soap its
name: From Mount Sapo, where animals were sacrificed, rain washed a
mixture of melted animal fats and wood ashes down into the Tiber River
below. There, the soapy mixture was discovered to be useful for washing
clothing and skin.
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.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, the popularity of soap and bathing
in Europe went into decline. Though many non-European cultures
maintained bathing practices throughout the medieval period, it wasn't
until several centuries later that bathing would come back into fashion
Soapmakers' guilds began to spring up in Europe during the seventeenth
century. Secrets of the trade were closely guarded. The training and
promotion of craftsmen within the trade was highly regulated. Southern
European countries, such as Italy, Spain, and France were early
production centers for soap as they had an excellent supply of oil from
olive trees and barilla ashes, which they used to make lye.
The English began soapcrafting during the twelfth century.
Unfortunately, soap was heavily taxed as a luxury item, and so it was
only readily available to the rich. In 1853, when the English soap tax
was repealed, a boom in the soap trade coincided with a change in the
social attitudes toward personal cleanliness.
In Colonial America, soap was made by women producing it out of their
homes seasonally. The commercial production of soap did not start until
the early 1600's when enterprising soapmakers from England began
arriving in the New World.
Scientific advancements that affected the soapmaking trade began with
Nicholas Leblanc, a French chemist who patented a process for making an
alkali from common salt in 1791. His process allowed for the
inexpensive production of soda ash.
In the early 1800s, Michel Chevreul's significant discoveries about the
relationship of fats, glycerine, and fatty acids laid the groundwork
for the chemistry of soaps and fats.
During the mid-1800s, Belgian chemist Ernest Solvay discovered the
ammonia process that improved the methods for extracting soda ash from
common salt. This increased the availability and quality of soda ash
As a result of the scientific achievements, soap became a popular and
easy to-obtain commodity. It also began to take on many different
identities: soap for bathing, soap for clothing, soap for cleaning.
The marketplace was ready for variety, and manufacturers soon complied.
Companies such as Armour Soap Works (now the Dial corporation) and many
others paved the way for the giant soap companies we know today:
Colgate-Palmolive, Proctor and Gamble, Dial, Jergens, and Lever
Brothers. Ivory, Lifebuoy, Camay, Zest, Tone, Safeguard, Caress, and
other soap brand names became mass-marketed and common in the homes of
In the mid-1970s a new era of deodorant soaps came into vogue with
names like Irish Spring, Coast, and Shield. Then came specialty soaps
such as Neutrogena, Basis, and Oil of Olay.
Also at this time a woman named Ann Bramson published a short and
simple little book that may well have begun the revolution in the
soapmaking industry in America and abroad. The book was entitled "Soap:
Making it, Enjoying it". Her book triggered the revival of soap making
as a home craft and a significant micro-industry.
Consumers who are bored with mass-produced and mass-marketed products
have welcomed the arrival of small-scale soapcrafters. Together, these
small soap factories are enjoying at least 3 percent of the specialty
soap market. Their creativity and hands-on soapmaking is creating a
love for the craft and the product, and a demand for more of the same.