History of Bar Soap
We as people take personal hygiene with pride, whether it takes us three hours to get ready each morning or whether our routine is to simply hop in and out of the shower. Whatever your routine, soap may be an integral part of your day-to-day, but have you ever stopped to wonder how it got here? Is the soap you hold in your hand the same as the soap used thousands of years ago? You may be surprised at how rich soap’s history really is.
It is believed that the first discovery of soap may have been from an animal carcass lying next to the ashes of a burning fire. The fats from the carcass dripped onto the ash, creating a waxy substance which we know today as soap. The earliest recorded recipe for soap was found on a tablet in ancient Babylon, dating from 2200 BC and consisted of three basic ingredients- water, an alkali and oil of Cassia. A more recent Babylonian recipe dating from 556-539 BC contained ash, oil of Cypress and Sesame seed oil. Soap is also mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts dating from 1550 BC and the Bible in Jeremiah 2:22 and Malachi 3:2. With all of this information archaeologists have uncovered, it is assumed that soap was invented in the Middle East.
Much later in 2nd century AD, the Roman Empire had not adopted soap as their main method of cleansing. The Romans preferred to soak in oils, remove the oils by scraping it off then bathing in water. However, ancient Greek physician Galen is recorded as being an advocate for soap, and recommending it as a way to wash impurities as well as clothes. Physicians today are still imparting the same advice to patients as Galen did almost 2,000 years ago.
Soapmaking did not take off in Europe until around the 7th century. Italy and Spain were some of the primary soap producers of Europe, making their soaps with alkali and goat fat, unlike much of the world at the time who used alkali and vegetable oils. The common sentiment was that European soaps had an unpleasant smell, and thus soap was often imported from the Middle East where soap with a pleasant smell was produced.
In England, soap was somewhat foreign in the middle ages. A 12th century British chronicler from this time, John of Wallingford, recorded that he disapproved of immigrants who bathed, combed their hair and changed their clothes everyday. Other British chroniclers record the emergence of soapmakers in Bristol in 1192 and later in 1562-1642. The need for cleanliness in England was critical due to lack of sanitation, rampant disease and unclean water. Once it was understood that hygiene played a large part in preventing disease and general health issues, soap became a commodity. The success of the soap industry was noticed by Queen Anne in 1712, who placed a tax on soaps and it was until it wasn’t until 1852 that the soap duty was disbanded as a greater concern was placed on cleanliness.
One of the first major soapmakers was Andrew Pears who created a clear, glycerin soap that had the aroma of an English garden. Another large soapmaker of the time and even to this day were the Lever Brothers, who would later change their company name to Unilever. Since their creation, soap expanded into almost every home in every corner of the world. It wasn’t until the first surfactant was created during World War I that soap had a competitor, and even to this day, people prefer soap.
Today, cold processed soap is still made with three basic ingredients: water, alkali and oil. These ingredients combined haven’t gone out of style for thousands of years, which is why we at EG kept the integrity of soap history by choosing to make our natural bar soaps with the same ingredients. Why has this simple formula been so successful over time? Perhaps it was the way that soap cleaned dirt and grime so much better than simply rinsing in water, or the effect that soap had on skin that made millions of people for thousands of years choose to use soap before they even understood the science behind it. Whatever the reason, the next time you go to wash with a bar of soap, you can thank your ancestors for choosing to do the same.