The History of Soapmaking


Ever wonder where soap came from?

(We often have students asking to use this info for book reports, etc.  Feel free to use!)

Soap is a substance that when used with water, reduces surface tension to attract dirt and oil away from skin or other materials such as clothing.  How?  Soap acts as  a "surfactant" which means it helps water to soak in, rather than remain in tight droplets.  Soap molecules have a head which attracts water, and a tail that repels water.  When mixed with water, soap molecules push their tails up through the surface of water to get away.  These tails poking up through water cause water to spread out and thoroughly "wet" a surface.  Soap works by attaching itself to dirt with its tail, the head is attracted to water and that suspends the molecule until water rinses it off, carrying away both dirt and soap...and why thorough rinsing is so important. 

There are many stories about how soap was "invented," but soap has probably been used in some form or another as far back as prehistoric times, .....but not quite in the same form as we know it today...... 

In early times as well as now, a soap-like substance was/can be extracted from plants such as soapwort, soap root, soap bark, yucca, horsetail, fuschia leaves, bouncing bet, and the agave.....plants such as these were/are often found flourishing on riverbanks or near lakes.

As far back as 2500 B.C., clay tablets from near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (today known as southern Iraq) were found that make mention of the use of soap.  It's use for washing did not necessarily come first. It was first used as a way to dress one's hair, or as a medicament on wounds.

In ancient Rome, oils, ungents, plant essences, and cosmetics were used liberally, but no reference was made to soap as a cleaning agent.  However an implement called a "strigil" was used to scrape off oils used to anoint bodies, and off with this scraping came some dirt.






Cleopatra used (mare's) milk, honey, and essential oils in her bathing rites, but no soap.  Her cleansing agent was fine white sand which caused her to come-clean by abrasion.

Clay tablets dating to 2200 B.C. refer to a soap mixture of water, alkali, and scented oils.

"Wise Women".. often considered to be witches in Medieval times, used their alchemy secrets (saponification) to turn oils, caustic ash, and herbs into beneficial skin preparations. 

The volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, erupted over the city of Pompeii, Italy in 79 A.D.  Upon excavation of the city, an entire soapmaking factory was revealed, including bars of soap preserved in the hardened lava.

An ancient Roman legend is where soap got it's name from.  On Mount Sapo, animals were sacrificed. Rain water washed down the mountain through this mixture of melted animal fats and wood ashes into the Tiber River below.  Women doing their wash at the river noticed clothes coming cleaner that were exposed to this soapy mixture of saponified acid (fats) and alkali (caustic ashes).  However no doubt, this same mixture could have occurred any time since humans began cooking meat over fires, invariably dripping fat into ash, and a soapy substance could have bubbled up in rain or spilled water.

Roman baths were built around 312 B.C. and were quite popular, although not widespread.  They went into decline after the fall of the Roman Empire. 

It is believed that  many of the terrible health plagues suffered during the Middle Ages were the result of a lack of good hygiene!

The Arabs, Turks, Greeks, Celts, and Vikings all learned of soapmaking and introduced it to countries they conquered, and therefore soapmaking spread....but bathing was more a relaxing pastime or social duty than for cleansing purposes. 

Marseilles emerged as a great soapmaking center, followed by Genoa, Venice, Bari and Castilla.   All had a rich and plentiful supply of olive oil and barilla, a fleshy plant whose ashes were used to make the lye formula used in soapmaking at the time.

Soapmaking trade associations came into existence, and training in soapmaking was highly regulated.   Secrets of the trade were carefully guarded then, as now.




In 1399, England's Henry IV instituted the Order of the Bath.....ordering his noblemen to venture into a water-filled tub at least once in their lives during knighthood. 



Queen Elizabeth bathed every three months "whether she needed to or not," and was known as a sophisticated woman!  Perfume was generally used to hide offending odors.  Water was considered a strange, magical fluid, only trusted if applied by a physician, and that if used incorrectly, could cause sickness or worse.  Soon, more doctors prescribed "the water cure," and people found they enjoyed it!

England and France recognized the profitability of soap as it gained popularity and imposed a high tax on it, making it difficult to attain for any other than the rich or royal. 

A French chemist, Nicolas LeBlanc, found a way to make lye from salt, a far easier and less expensive way to make soap.  In 1852, the soap tax in England and France was abolished making it easier to make soap a household commodity for personal hygiene as well as for washing clothes.  


With advances in indoor plumbing, and hot and cold running water, soap soon made it's way into all homes.

Some of the earliest soap companies were England's Pears, Yardley, and Lever Brothers companies. 


  Early American settlers made soap themselves, saving up cooking grease and animal fat all year long for one big soapmaking day each year.  However, primitive soapmaking such as this, was often imprecise and yielded imprecise results (too much lye often used!)...and how soap earned the negativity associated with harsh"lye soap."


("I'd kill for a bath right now!")


In 1806, William Colgate opened Colgate & Company in New York, buying a giant kettle to make 45,000 lb. soap batches in, becoming the first big soap company here in America.  He was followed by William Proctor and James Gamble, who had an employee that left for lunch one day, and left the soap mixing machine on, beating air into the soap batch....unintentionally creating the world's first "floating soap," Ivory.   Harley Procter, son of the original Proctor was inspired with "Ivory's" name one day while sitting in church, he heard the forty-fifth psalm - "All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, where they have made thee glad"

Out in the west, B. J. Johnson Company was making soap entirely of vegetable oils, palm and olive.   The soap they produced became so popular, they renamed their company after the soap Palmolive...although today's Palmolive soap recipe is not the same soap as the now, like most commercial soaps, contains primarily animal fat.

England's Lever Brothers sent over some of their staff to start soapmaking here in America and developed Lifebuoy, which was initially sold as an antiseptic soap, but it's formulation was changed when it did not sell well.  Along with Lifebuoy, the term "B.O." (body odor) was coined.  Advertising came into vogue and the threat of the much-dreaded and socially unacceptable B.O. made an excellent selling tool for soapmakers!  And hence...soapmaking companies were off and running in America!

During World War I, vegetable oils were hard to find so there was a need to find another way to make soap.   Synthetic detergents were born and revolutionized the soapmaking industry --not necessarily for the better, but it was a cheaper way to produce soap, and why low commerical soap prices are the yardstick most people judge soaps by still today.      Cheaper...but not necessarily better.

Currently, only a small percentage of the industry uses age-old methods for making soap.  Standard grocery store soap recipes are comprised of approximately 80% tallow (animal fat) and 20% coconut oil, with added chemical sudsing agents. 

There was a time when a bar of soap was considered a luxury and was even exchanged among world leaders as a gift of great favor and goodwill!   

Soapmaking was rooted in the use of animal fats, which "did the job" of cleaning, but as modern day handcrafted soapmakers have come to know---pure vegetable oils make a superior bar of soap that is richly emollient, skin-friendly and luxurious!  Gone are the days of inaccurately-manufactured or mis-measured lye that produced harsh, stingy lye-heavy soap!  

Today, handcrafted soap companies have sprung up by the hundreds and are found easily on the internet and in boutique stores, at farmers markets and craft shows!