The History of Soap

Archaeologists digging in the remains of the Mesopotamian civilization discovered a clay cylinder dating back to 2800 B.C. that was covered by something like soap. When they deciphered the lettering on the cylinders they were amazed to find that it described a method of making a soap-like mixture by boiling fats along with ashes.


Archeologists have also gained more information about soap making from various excavations of ancient civilizations. Artifacts such as the Ebers Papyrus dating to 1500, found in Egypt, describe different ways of making soap. One method which was described was to combine vegetable as well as animal fat along with alkaline salts and to use it when one bathed.


According to some sources, the word soap is derived from ancient Roman story. Animals were sacrificed at Mount Sapo. When rain waters washed the animal fat and ashes down into the banks of the Tiber River, it was discovered that the residue found on the rocks and clay there enabled the washing of items by the women there easy and effective. “Sapo”, is a Latin word which means “soap” and was borrowed from a Celtic or Germanic language.


The Arabs made soap from vegetable oil and some aromatic oils like thyme oil. Sodium also began to be used in soaps. Soap was introduced in market places like Kufa, Basra and Nablus in the Middle East. Soap concoctions were found to be in liquid and solid forms. The Arabians used special soaps for the purpose of shaving. An Arabian manuscript also describes a method of making soap by mixing sesame oil and a sprinkle of potash, alkali and some lime, and then boiling the mixture, and then pouring it into molds and allowing it to set and harden.


The Bible is another resource which describes how the Israelites mixed vegetable oils and ashes to make a substance similar to what we would think of as hair gel.  In Greece and in Rome, people started to use a form of “soap” to clean themselves in the bath houses. First they rubbed oil all over their body and scraped the oil off with pumice stones or metal scrapers. The Gauls and Germans mixed ashes with animal fats and decorated their hair with that substance. In the second century A.D the famous physician Galens from Alexandria, recommended that soap to be used as topical treatment on his patients skin.


After the fall of Roman Empire in 467 A.D., bathing habits declined. The lack of cleanliness and unsanitary living conditions led heavily to the plagues of the Middle Ages and especially to the Black Death of 14th century. However, washing hands eventually was considered important even during the Renaissance (before the 17th century), because up until then most people ate with their fingers. Advice manuals which date back to the medieval periods instructed keeping hands clean and nails cut short. Washing of the hands before and after meals was encouraged, and may have even been based in religious ritual. A fourteenth century writing, probably used as a household manual, gave directions for preparing a washing water, containing sage, marjoram, chamomile, rosemary and orange peel as ingredients.


In 'The Tudor Housewife' Alison Sim wrote about how the Tudors washed themselves despite how it is said that people back then did not bathe much at all. Henry VIII and other royals had permanent plumbed-in bathrooms, like those built at Hampton Court and Whitehall. These magnificent bathrooms were great luxuries. Bathing for the average person meant having to fill a wooden tub with water – which was time consuming and not something they would bother to do every day. An interest in personal cleanliness did develop, and soap recipes began to show up in various household instruction manuals.

Sir Hugh Plat, in his Delightes for Ladies to adorne their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes & Water (Printed by Humfrey Lownes, 1609), gives a recipe for 'a delicate washing ball'.

Take three ounces of Orace, half an ounce of Cypres, two ounces of Calamus Aromaticus, one ounce of Rose leaves, two ounces of Lavender flowres: beat all these together in a mortar, searching them thorow a fine Searce, then scrape some castill sope, and dissolve it with some Rose-water, then incorporate all your powders therewith, by labouring of them well in a mortar.

Those directions were basically scenting toilet soap, or 'castill sope'.  Castille soap, at the time, was expensive and was an imported toilet soap made with olive oil rather than the animal fat used in laundry soap. Sir Hugh Plat described many recipes for washing water.


After the Renaissance, Europeans started using soap for personal hygiene and cleanliness. Its manufacture was not that much different to today and was formulated based on their historical knowledge of how fats and alkaline substances were combined. Soapmaking became an established craft in Europe by the 7th century. Soap manufacturing guilds developed and they guarded and protected their trade secrets very closely. These soap makers used vegetable and animal oils and mixed them with plant ashes and fragrances to offer a variety of soaps for bathing, shampooing, shaving as well as laundering.


Italy, Spain and France became early centers of soap manufacturing especially with their abundant supply of oil from olive trees. The English began soap production during the 12th century. During the 19th century, soap was heavily taxed as a luxury item in various countries and it wasn’t until the tax was lowered, that it became available to the average person which gave rise to a standard of improved cleanliness.


In the American colonies, women used to make their own household soap and usually had soap making days where they made enough to last them a long while. They collected lye by allowing water to drip along the wood ashes gathered from their hearths and then the resulting substance was mixed with vegetable or animal fat.


In America's Women, Gail Collins writes, of colonial women in America:

Soap making was a long and arduous process that probably never ranked high on anyone's list of favorite chores. The grease and lye were boiled together, outdoors, in a huge pot over an open fire. it took about six bushels of ashes and 24 pounds of grease to make one barrel of soap, which was soft, like clear jelly.

Over the years, new scientific discoveries were made which assisted in making the production of soap easier. Better methods of creating the lye – the alkaline component – were created, as were the development of more purified fats and oils and fragrances.   This paved the way for more commercial and large scale manufacture of soap. Today consumers have a choice between commercially made soap, and soap made by more traditional handcrafted methods.



  • The Tudor Housewife by Alison Sim
  • America's Women, 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, helpmates and Heroines by Gail Collins
  • Sir Hugh Plat, in his Delightes for Ladies to adorne their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes & Water (Printed by Humfrey Lownes, 1609)
  • History of Soap

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