Using water as a cleaning agent has been around since the beginning of man. Not long after that, people found out that water couldn’t clean everything. In looking for ways to clean things better, someone figured out that a mixture of ashes and fats cleaned better than water alone.
The earliest origin of soap making isn’t clear. Clay tablets from as early as 2500 BC suggest soap was in use at that time, mainly as a hair styling aid and for treating wounds. Early Greeks cleaned their pots and the statues of their gods with a mixture of lye and ashes.
Cleopatra used milk, honey and essential oils in her bathing. She then scrubbed her skin with sand to cleanse it, exfoliating it as well. After oils were put on the body in ancient Rome, they were scraped off using a “strigil”, taking some of the dirt off with the oils.
The Gauls and Romans used goat’s tallow and ashes from beech trees to make soap. Roman legend says that soap got its name from Mount Sapo. Animal sacrifices were performed on this hill, and the rain washed the fats and ashes down to the clay soil along the riverbank below. Women washing clothes there discovered this mixture cleaned the clothes better than water alone.
Roman baths came into being around 312 BC using water from their aqueducts. Bathing became popular, and by the second century AD, soap was recommended for cleaning and medicinal use. An entire soap making factory was discovered when Pompeii was excavated. After the fall of Rome, bathing and using soap declined in Europe. Perhaps this contributed to the plagues of the Dark and Middle Ages?
The Order of the Bath was instituted by King Henry IV in 1399. To join this order, the knight had to venture into a tub filled with water at least once during his knighthood. Queen Elizabeth is reported to have taken a bath every three months, if she needed it or not!
Marseille, France became a prominent soap making city, due to the plentiful olive oil and vegetable ash in the area. At first soap was imported to America, but settlers soon found that they could make soap for free using the ashes from their fires and the fats from their butchered animals. This lye soap was tough on both dirt and skin.
Palmolive soap, made from palm and olive oils, was in use in the early 1900’s. In another factory, Ivory soap was born when a worker accidentally left the soap mixer running while he went to lunch; incorporating extra air into the soap and creating soap that floats. Soap companies abound around the world, and regardless of how soap first came to be, we can say with surety that it is here to stay.