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.
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.
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.
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 contemporary 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!
The copy of a racist advertisement 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.”
Our Grooming and Beauty Collection is full of items to keep you looking your best, all day long.
Leading image: Hotel soap bars, circa 1950s-60s. (Image by Patty Robert)