The History of Soapmaking

LOOSELY DEFINED, SOAP IS a substance that when used with with water, decreases surface tension in an effort to attract away unwanted substances.

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 experience.

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 in Europe.

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 In 1853, when the English soap tax was repealed, a boom in the soap trade coincided with a change in the social attitudes toward personal cleanliness.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 for soapmaking.

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 most Americans.

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 filling a need in 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.

Sappo Hill Soapworks