Hotel soap bars from 1950s-60s. (Image by Patty Robert)

Hotel soap bars, circa 1950s-60s. (Image by Patty Robert)

The science of soap is more complex than one might imagine, requiring at least a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry. Even the most basic ingredients of soap rely on key reactions with other ingredients — a give and take that makes you wonder how we ever figured out soap in the first place. It makes some sense then, that the creation of cleansing products was supposedly discovered by accident.

Historians believe that the word “soap” is derived from the ancient Roman temple site at Mount Sapo, a spot used for the regular ritualistic sacrifice of animals. Animal fat would then run down the mountain into the nearby Tiber River, combining with fire ash to form a substance that women, innocently washing their clothes on the river’s banks, found particularly handy.

Vintage Ivory soap advertising with WWI soldiers, 1919.

Ivory advertising with WWI soldiers, 1919.

There are other, even earlier historic appearances of soap-like substances. Babylonians boiled fats and acids for primitive hair gels and the ancient Gauls concocted a similar mixture to use as a hair dye. In fact, most early soaps were used in this way, as pomades and styling products.

The Dark Ages put a stop to all the primping and preening, but it wasn’t until much later that soaps began to appear again in a variety of forms, most combining animal or vegetable fats with ash or sodium.

Hand-made and cut olive oil soap

Olive oil soap made and cut by hand.

Fragrances were added, herbs such as lavender and flowers such as rose were simmered down to essentials oils and added into baths for a sweet smell. In the 12th century, olive oil became the preferred fatty element for soaps, with olive rich Spain and Italy becoming epicenters of soap manufacturing. Castile was also used as a veggie alternative to animal fats.

Once considered a luxury item, soap was highly taxed by most countries and available only to the wealthy until well into the 19th century. This meant that if you wanted to be clean, you either had to be rich, or figure out how to make soap yourself, which many did.

Ivory factory workers, 1910.

Female workers at the Ivory Soap Factory, 1910.

Experimenting with a variety of forms, soap-making boiled down to basic chemical reactions — fatty acids melding with sodium or potassium (ash, lye, potash lime) — eventually forming what is essentially a salt. It may not be the tabletop kind, but soap is a salt nonetheless.

Today soap is manufactured all over the world by enormous corporations and mom and pop soap shops alike. What was once a grueling backyard chore amid the stench of melting animal fat and toxic lye is now a product you can purchase at any local convenience store. The best soaps, however, are manufactured on pretty much the same principles developed hundreds of years ago. But comtemporary practices lean away from animal derived fat to a bevy of other natural ingredients that sound more like mealtime than a bath — honey, milk, lavender, oatmeal and olive oil. Yum!

Racist Pears' Soap ad from the Colonial Times, 1899.

Pears’ Soap ad from the appropriately named Colonial Times, 1899.

The copy of the above racist advertising by the British Pears’ Soap reads: “The first step toward lightening The White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pears’ Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place — it is the ideal toilet soap.”


Soap Naturally by Patrizia Garzena and Marina Tadiello

and tagged ,


  1. nate
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 6:06 AM | Permalink

    Those ads are so interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Nins
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 2:31 PM | Permalink

    soap has also become more and more important in the mania for youth. the fountain of youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder seems like a bath where only soap needs to be added… thanks for the interesting article.

  3. April
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 7:27 PM | Permalink

    Pears' Soap – what a terrible company. And when you go on their website it feels like they haven't changed one bit.

  4. Posted January 30, 2010 at 3:46 AM | Permalink

    Oh. My. God!! I'm switching teams, and switching to Ivory Soap. My wife insists the Ivory ads are fakes- made for a gay graphic design competition, or a gay magazine. I say they were originals intended to appeal to the female buyers of household goods (what hunks!), quite possibly designed and propagated with a nudge and a wink by knowing creatives.

  5. Brandon Aston
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 11:57 AM | Permalink

    Love the Ivory Ads.

  6. William Bjornson
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 5:32 PM | Permalink


    Posted January 30, 2010 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    Pears’ Soap – what a terrible company. And when you go on their website it feels like they haven’t changed one bit."

    That's not just Pear's, that's the whole country. Britain threw away so much talent into those two stupid wars that they have crippled themselves. What they have left is the weak, lame and lazy, of mind as well as body. Apparently we are right on their heels. "Yes, Virginia, empires really do crumble", Bad to be here on planet when they do, I suspect, from reading our history.

  7. Posted September 23, 2013 at 9:23 PM | Permalink

    Well, I like Pears' soap. This is the most reliable soap of all time and I like the ancient story of soap. Impressive..!!

  8. Posted December 16, 2014 at 6:41 AM | Permalink

    read my review on dove pink beauty bar

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

Click here to subscribe (via RSS) to the comments of this post.