History of Soap

We don’t know when soap was first discovered, but there are many stories about it. The history of soap, the most important hygiene tool in the world today, is more complex than it seems.

In the Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest and most important medical sources of ancient Egypt, it is shown that the ancient Egyptians used a soap-like substance that they washed regularly and used animal and vegetable oils to create it. Moses gave the Israelites some laws for personal cleanliness. The Israelites knew that mixing ashes and oil produced a kind of gel that they could use on the hair. The word “borith”, translated as soap in the Old Testament, is considered to be a general term for a cleaning agent made from wood or vegetable ashes. “If I wash with soap grass and clean my hands with lye” Torah, Job 9:30

In the 2nd century, the Ancient Roman physician Galen recommended soap for both medicinal and cleansing purposes. According to Galen, the best soaps were Gallic soaps. Bathing habits rapidly increased all over Europe. Until the seventh century, soap makers in Spain and Italy used only goat fat and beech ashes. At the same time, the French began to use olive oil to make soap. Bath and laundry soaps began to appear soon after the discovery of fragrances. Soaps decorated with scented plants such as lavender, rose and rosemary took the place of the unscented soaps. Moreover, people started to produce different types of laundry and bath soaps.

In the Middle East, there are sources describing soap production in Islamic documents in the 12th century. However, in the sources in Morocco, Damascus and Aleppo, the industrialization of soap dates back to the 13th century. In Europe, Italy and Spain had become good soap producers in the eighth century. Marseille, France, started semi-industrialized professional soap production from the 15th century. After the 16th century, lighter soaps were produced using vegetable oils instead of animal fats. Undoubtedly, the biggest reason why the use of soap has become so widespread in the modern age has been a better understanding of the role of microorganisms in reducing the population size. Popular awareness of hygiene and sanitation first began towards the end of the 18th century in Europe and America.

Soap production, which was made on a relatively small scale, entered the period of factoryization with the industrial revolution. With James Keir’s discovery of extraction and the establishment of a soap factory, Andrew Pears started the production of high quality transparent soap in London in 1807. Until the end of the 1800s, soap was a luxury item used only by the upper class elite, and even a soap tax was introduced in England by the queen for a while. Due to a law stipulating that at least 1 ton should be produced, soap could not be produced by small producers as it required huge boilers. This process ended after the tax was abolished in 1853 and the soap trade increased.

A few years before he committed suicide with a pistol in 1806, a minor revolution took place in soap production when the French chemist Nicolas Leblanc discovered how to extract soda from common salt. Around the same time, Louis Pasteur proclaimed that good personal hygiene would reduce the spread of diseases. At the beginning of the 19th century, soap making was one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. Rural Americans made their own soap using a process from the Colonial era. They used an old-fashioned method they called the ash funnel. They filled a funnel-shaped wooden barrel with a hole in the bottom of it, filled with rain water, put pebbles and straw at the bottom and turned it into a strainer. They made the first caustic solutions called lye by keeping the tree ashes they had thrown in and filtering them here. All that remained was to combine this solution with animal fats in the correct proportions. To obtain the best lye solution, they threw eggs or potatoes into the rested lye solution to see if it could sink in water. If the egg or potato rises above the water, the water has provided sufficient alkalinity, if it slowly sinks to the bottom, it is still weak.

William Hesketh Lever and his brother James bought a small soap factory in 1886 and set up one of the largest soap businesses, formerly Lever Brothers, now known as Unilever. Then came massive ad campaigns and million-dollar sales. Of course, with the abundance of sales and increasing costs, the naturalness gradually decreased. It has allowed cosmetics products that contain almost no natural products to hit the shelves. Today, awareness of the negative effects of synthetic additives and chemicals in commercial soaps seems to have begun to reverse this consumption-based process.

Earth and sky, forests and fields, lakes and streams, mountain and sea are excellent educators and teach some of us more than we can learn from books.

John Lubbock

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