Soapwort plant, mixed and agitated with water, gave early civilization its first cleaning agents before soap was made.
The soap has history going back as far as six thousand years. The first soap makers were Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, as well as the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Legend says that soap was first discovered on Sappo Hill in Rome when a group of Roman women were washing their clothes in the River Tiber at the base of a hill, below which animal fats from the sacrifices ran down into the river and created soapy clay mixture. They soon found that using this same cleansing substance the clothes were coming clear easier. Since that time we know soap as soap.
However, the first recorded evidence of soap making are Babylonian clay cylinders dating from 2800 B.C. Inscriptions on the cylinders are the earliest known written soap recipe and they describe a process by which fats could be combined with wood ash and water to create a substance capable of cleaning. The product thus produced was not necessarily used to wash the body; it might have been used to clean textile fibers such as wool and cotton in preparation for weaving into cloth.
The Ebers papyrus (Egypt, 1550 BC) describe how animal and vegetable oils were mixed with alkaline salts to produce a soap-like substance and mention that soap was used for treating sores, skin diseases as well as washing.
According to the Pliny the Elder, the Phoenicians made soap from goat’s tallow and wood ashes in 600 BC.
1 – 500 A.D.
The Gauls and the Romans combined goat’s tallow and the ashes of the beech tree to produce both hard and soft soap products. A soap factory complete with finished bars was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, one of the cities destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. While the Romans are well known for their public baths, generally soap was not used for personal hygiene and bathing. During the early century of the Common Era soap was used as treatment for skin disease. The importance of soap for personal washing was recognized during the later centuries of the Roman era.
The ancient Greeks were known to wash without soap. They preferred to wash with water, blocks of clay, pumice, sands and ashes and then to anoint themselves with oil. In the second century AD, Galen, the famous Greek physician, recommended washing with soap as a preventive measure for skin diseases.
Arabic chemists were the first one to produce soaps made from vegetable oils (such as olive oil), aromatic oils (such as thyme oil) and lye. From the beginning of the 7th century, soap was produced in Nablus, Kufa and Basra. They made perfumed and colored soap, some of the soaps were liquid and others were solid. They also made special soap for shaving.
By 1200 AD, Marseilles, France and Savona, Italy became soap making centers. In the 8th century, soap making was well-known in Italy and Spain where soap was made with goat fat and Beech tree ashes. During the same period, the French started using olive oil to produce soap. Eventually, fragrances were introduced and soaps for bathing, shaving, shampooing and laundry began to be made.
From the 16th century finer soaps were produced in Europe using vegetable oils (such as olive oil) as opposed to animal fats. Many of these soaps are still manufacture, both industrially and by small scale soap makers. Castile soap is a popular example of the vegetable-only soaps derived from the oldest “white soap” of Italy.
Due to a better understanding of the role of hygiene and the promotion of popular awareness of the relationship between cleanliness and health, industrially manufactured bar soaps became available in the late eighteen century. The big leap in commercial soap making was two discoveries by French chemists Nicholas Leblanc and Michael Chevreul around the turn of the 19th century. In 1791, Leblanc patented a method of making sodium carbonate or soda ash from commonly available salt. In 1811, Chevreul discovered the relationship and chemical nature of fatty acids, glycerin, and fats.
Andrew Pears began manufacturing a high-quality, transparent soap in 1789 in London. William Gossage manufactured low-price good-quality soap from the 1850s. Robert Spear Hudson started producing a soap powder in 1837.
The development of synthetic detergents in Germany in 1916 made another breakthrough in soap making chemistry. Another well known soaping center was The Castille region of Spain, responsible for making the first, hard, white bars of olive oil soap. Castille soap is still known today like soaps made with all, or mostly all, olive oil.
Commercial soap, as we know it today, came into existence during WWI. After the Great War and until 1930’s, a method called batch kettle boiling was used for soap production. Shortly thereafter, continuous process that decreased soap making production time to less than a day was introduced and refined by Procter & Gamble. Continuous process is still used by large commercial soap manufacturers.