Myths and History

Posted by elmoute 13/09/2021 0 Comment(s) Related Topics,

Some history...

The first recorded use of soap formulations comes from Babylon around 2800 BCE. The Babylonians used a mixture of animal fats boiled with ashes and water for the treatment of textile yarns.
In the papyrus of Ebers (1500 BCE) it is mentioned that in ancient Egypt Soap was manufactured from animal fat and vegetable oil for cleanliness and treatment of skin diseases.




Ancient Greeks, reportedly did not wash with soap, but for cleaning the skin used olive oil, with clay, pumice, ash, etc. (By modern knowledge, they were making soap at the spot, with oil, ash and clay, which with bathing water instantly proceeded to the production of a kind of mild soap, similar in principal to the soap of Marseille).

But, Greek tradition says also that soap was first produced in Lesbos Island, motherland of Sappho, the poetess, from where its name originated, at the base of an altar accumulating fats and ashes, (residues from animal sacrifices offered to the gods). As such, drifted by the rain, ended up in a water creek where women were washing their clothes. They observed that they were cleaned better in the presence of this substance.

The Latin word "sapo" was first mentioned by Pliny the Elder in Natural History (Historia Naturalis) and describes it as a preparation from goat fat, salt and ash.

According to Roman legend, just like the Greek one, soap was discovered on the banks of the Tiber where ashes combined with fat were swept by rainwater from the nearby animal sacrifice altar Mount Sapo.

For these legends, of course, there is no evidence.

Historical proof of soap making was found in Pompeii, near Naples, where not only a soap production workshop was excavated, but also intact soap bars were discovered. Pompeii was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 ACE. The story also mentions that the Romans improved the quality of soap intensifying the alkaline strength of the used ash (wood ash contains KHCO3) with lime (CaCO3).

Although the Roman public baths were very popular, soap was used for personal hygiene and cleansing of the body only in the years of the Late Roman Empire. It was valued for the relief of skin conditions and its miraculous properties for health and personal hygiene were described by Galen, a Greco – Roman physician of the 2nd century ACE.

This knowledge, was brought with ancient tribes moving to Europe and there are reports of the use of soap by the Celts and Gauls both for cleaning utensils and for ornamental purposes.

Reference is made for the use of soap analogs, mainly of plant origin, in the everyday life and rituals of ancient American Indians.

Caustic Soda (sodium hydroxide, NaOH) and various aromatic oils and were for the first time used by the Arabs and scented and colored soaps were produced.

During the Middle Ages soap was produced by closed casts by secret recipes (usually invented by continuous effort and trial and error procedures) which were given in great secrecy by father to son and by craftsmen to apprentices.

The use of soap as a means of cleanliness became popular by time. In Southern Europe major centers for soap production were Marseille, Castile, and Savona, and here olive oil was used in soapmaking in contrast to Northern Europe where tallow was – and mostly continues to be – used. Alkali, necessary for the production, was derived from out burning large breech forests for their ash, resulting, in some areas, a great shortage of wood fuel for the winter.

In America, for the colonials, soap was the product of handicraft and soda produced in a perforated barrel full of ashes from which they passed rainwater. The solution of animal fats and so procured soda was boiled to obtain the required density - a raw egg should be standing on the surface to a specific uncovered area – and that was it.

With the development of perfumery and the constant search for the best recipes the product improved, demand increased, soap was taxed, but the price made it prohibitive for most people. It was a luxury item for the upper class until 1791 when French chemist Nicolas Leblanc succeeded to export sodium carbonate NaCO3 from salt, which after treatment with lime produced the alkali (NaOH) needed for saponification in a cheap and easy way.




In 1811 Michael Chevreul discovered the chemical nature of fatty acids and accurately defined the amount of alkali needed to saponify a given mixture of oils.

By this time, soap was produced in much better quality, materials used for saponification were in the right proportions and the cost was no longer prohibitive for the mass population.

Meanwhile, investigations of Louis Pasteur had demonstrated the importance of personal hygiene in preventing the spread of STDs . The road to securing the soap as a consumer product has opened.

One of the first people who foresaw soap as a cosmetic product was Andrew Pears, a barber from Cornwall who settled in London and began experimenting with cosmetics. He improved existing rough soap and produced a clear, scented with "flowers of the garden" aroma. Men loved this bar instantly. The Pears Soap is the first patented by brand name product and it is still sold today.
The heir of the firm Thomas Barratt, following the revolutionary era of advertising and promotion, made Pears Soap global product marketing. He bought the work of the popular painter John Everett Millais "A child’s world”' a work based on the tradition of Dutch masters of Baroque period with reference to the transience of life. It depicts a boy that observes a bubble - symbol of beauty and fragile nature of life. Barratt, having full and exclusive rights to the painting, changes it by adding a Pears soap bar in the hand of the boy and named the painting "Bubbles". This act aroused a storm of comments on the relationship between art and advertising, but the work was enshrined in the advertising campaign of the company and used for decades.

In Greece, from the 17th century and later a thriving soap manufacturing business was developed, especially in areas where Olive Oil is produced and exists as a raw material. Mytilene, Peloponnese, Crete, Athens and Volos produced excellent quality olive oil soap for personal hygiene and laundry.




In the Victorian era the idea and only of a female naked body in the bathroom scandalized and was considered a sign of moral decline. When mass production, advertising and distribution of soap from big companies like WH Lever, BJ Johnson, and others became the norm, things started to change. The industrial revolution, utilizing the power of steam, gave impetus to the production of soap on a large scale.