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The History of Soap

The history of soap is an interesting one, being developed by chance back 4,500 years ago. The oldest written tablet mentioning soap is by the Sumerians, possibly in the city of Girsu in ancient Mesopotamia.

This is around the time of the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The type of “soap” discovered was as a result of heating fatty acids, like rendered fat, together with water and an akaline like lye which was a substance derived from wood or pot ash. This mixture of fat and water and ash lifted away dirt and was used for cleaning wool and cotton before weaving. This soap was not used for personal washing or hygiene.   Soap’s use and popularity has always been hindered because it effectively “cleans away something you cannot see”, germs. The first evidence of soap being used to clean skin was found in the Hittite capitol of Boghazkoi about 1,000 years after it was discovered. 

By the Middle Ages new types of “soaps” were being used amongst Europe’s more privileged classes and were brought there by Christian Crusaders and traders from Syria.  By the 13th century the manufacture of soap had become a cottage industry and documents mention the key element, alkali, which later became crucial in the modern chemistry and is derived from al-qualy or ashes. 

Medieval Spain were leaders in soap making by 800 AD whereas this began in England in about 1200 AD.  Whilst soap was originally produced from animal fats and had an unpleasant smell, this changed when olive oil began to be used in soap formulas instead.  Much of Europe’s soap production moved to the Mediterranean olive-growing regions. 

French, Italian, Spanish and English versions of soap soon followed, and of these, Jabon de Castilla, or Castile Soap, named from the region of central Spain where it was produced became well known. 

Demand for “toilet soaps” increased over the years with the key change in America being the Civil War where reformers regularly spoke about washing with water and soap for sanitary measure.  

It is amazing how far “soap” has come in its journey and its uses are endless from cleaning, to saving lives, priceless. 

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