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a short history of soap

a short history of soap

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Published by: dlmbrt on Jun 22, 2009
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A SHORT HISTORY OF SOAP©David LambertSoap is a wonderful thing. Most folks are so used to simply choosing a brand from thesupermarket shelf, they never think about what¶s in it or how it¶s made ± or whether it¶seven good for them. Nevertheless, because we use it every day on our bodies, it¶s worthknowing a little bit about how soap is made and where it comes from. When you think about it, the common act of washing our hands has revolutionized history. Our worldwould not exist, if mankind had not at some point begun to bathe.When asked, most folks cannot define the word soap. It's something we take for granted.But what is it?Soap is made from vegetable or animal fats and oils, mixed with a caustic alkali such assodium hydroxide (lye) or potassium hydroxide (potash), which initiates a chemicalreaction called saponification. The traditional method of producing potash was to steepwood ashes in water.Soap does not occur naturally, but the process of creating it is so simple that its discovery probably occurred long before the first villages and towns came into being. There is alegend, repeated endlessly in soapmaking books and websites, which tells of a certain hillin Rome called Mount Sapo. There was supposedly a temple on the top of this hill whereanimals were sacrificed in the fire, and the fats and ashes ran downhill into a river.Women doing their laundry discovered that their clothes became cleaner when theywashed them at the foot of Mt. Sapo. It¶s an attractive story, but it probably never happened. No one knows anything about a hill called Mt. Sapo, by a river or anywhereelse. Something like this may have occurred at some distant place and time, but even so itcertainly does not mark the first discovery of soap.Soap was probably first discovered when fire pits, used season after season by bands ohunters, were rained on. The animal fats from many kills would have dripped down intothe ashes, and the rains would have soaked the ashes to create a crude form of lye. Yes,the cave men probably knew how to make and use soap! Soap has been found inexcavations at ancient Babylon, dating from 2800 BC. An ancient medical papyrus fromEgypt describes the healing properties of vegetable oils mixed with alkali salts.Interestingly, the idea of using soap for personal hygiene and cleansing seems to havecome along fairly late. It was used mainly for washing wool and cleaning laundry long before anyone thought of using it to clean themselves. Ashes and animal fat were (andstill are) smeared on the body by primitive peoples to create a startling or distinctiveappearance. Stripes or patches of different colors would also have been useful in the hunt,functioning exactly like a tiger¶s stripes or the camouflage worn by hunters today. Oncecolored pigments were added, both war paint and cosmetics came into being. However, asimple mix of fat and ashes is not soap, but a precursor. For oils to saponify, ashes must be converted to lye. It was this process that must have been most elusive to our earliestancestors. Even so, there is abundant evidence that the properties of caustic alkali salts
 
were appreciated at a very early time.Strictly speaking, ashes steeped in water do not create lye, but potash. Lye is a causticsodium salt which is made from brine. The process for creating this chemical on anindustrial scale was invented in the 19th century, and had a huge impact on the soapindustry. Prior to that time, most soap was made with potash or a refined form call pearlash. Potash is a caustic salt of potassium rather than sodium. It is still used today inthe production of liquid soaps. The addition of table salt or sodium chloride to hardensoap was known at least as early as the Roman era, and in various locations naturaldeposits of caustic alkali were known to exist. Nevertheless, the use of sodium salts in theform of lye to create hard soaps was a late development.The Elber Papyrus,written about 1550 BC is a scroll more than sixty feet long, containingnearly a thousand different prescriptions and discussions concerning a host of diseasesand conditions. Egyptian medicine was holistic, and in many cases the ancient Egyptiantreatments remain in use today. The Elbers papyrus contains one of the earliestdescriptions of cancer and its treatment, describes the use of honey to heal wounds,outlines the earliest known treatment for the regeneration of hair loss, and describes the benefits of soap made with vegetable oils and herbs.Many other ancient peoples also discovered the usefulness of soap. The ancient Romans,Celts, Hebrews, Phoenicians and Egyptians all knew how to saponify various fats andoils. There is supposedly a preserved soap factory at Pompeii, complete with finished,modern-looking bars, although more recent study of the site has thrown doubt on whatthis space may actually have been used for.Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, much of Europe forgot how to make soap.Bathing remained popular, but it was often considered risqué or even a little sacrilegious.St. Jerome is supposed to have said that having been washed clean in Christ, it was notnecessary to bathe again. It was a time when the Church held the great masses of peoplein an iron grip of ignorance and poverty. The filth and unsanitary conditions of medievalEurope contributed to plagues and all kinds of illness. Still, there were soapmakingcenters in Italy and France as early as the 9th century.Personal cleanliness did not gain mass popularity in Europe until the 17th century.Eventually, though, soapmaking industries did emerge in Italy and France. Vegetable oilsand purified animal fats (lard and tallow) were blended with costly scents and colorants,as well as various kinds of botanical essences. In the 14th century the French emerged asthe makers of the finest soaps, using imported oils instead of tallow. In England, wheresoapmaking had long been a byproduct of the chandler¶s trade, soapmaking had yet tocome into its own. Soapmakers who tried to specialize found themselves so heavily taxedthat it was difficult to stay in business.The Muslims who occupied Spain and North Africa during the height of the Islamicempire maintained a high level of cleanliness. Their cities were clean, beautiful and well-lit, and their universities attracted scholars from around the world. In science, art,
 
medicine, philosophy, and many of the basic aspects of civilization, the Muslims provided the foundation which eventually lifted Europe up from the Dark Ages to theRenaissance. Throughout the Muslim world, soap was made from olive, palm, laurel andother oils. In Spain, the region called Castilla is remembered for a mild soap made from pure olive oil. True castile soap, made from olive oil or olive pomace oil (the oil drainedand pressed from the leftover material from the olive press), is a soft white bar that isextremely mild. It doesn¶t lather very well, though, and soapmakers experimented withadding other oils. Advances in shipping and exploration brought new materials to themarketplace, and soapmakers learned that coconut oil produces a luxurious lather; while palm oil stabilizes the mixture and produces a hard, long-lasting bar. Castor oil attractsmoisture to the skin and adds lather as well. Many other oils are used for their healingand conditioning properties.Soap was heavily taxed as a luxury item well into the 19th century, especially by theBritish. Once the taxes were lifted, soap became available to ordinary people, andsanitary conditions improved. Commercial soapmaking in America dates from 1608,when soapmakers arrived from England aboard the first ship to follow the Mayflower.Soapmakers were pioneers in advertising. In 1837, two brothers-in-law, chandler WilliamProctor and James Gamble, a soapmaker, formed a partnership to manufacture and selltheir products. These two men created a scheme for producing and distributing low cost,high quality soap products. They were extremely successful, and in less than twentyyears, their annual sales exceeded $1,000,000. By 1904, the Proctor and Gamblecompany was spending nearly half a million dollars a year on advertising ± a staggeringamount for that time. Even today, their insights into mass-marketing and distribution arestudied in college marketing courses.William Colgate opened his factory in New York in 1806. Colgate introduced CashmereBouquet, America¶s first perfumed soap, in 1872. Proctor and Gamble first marketedIvory Soap in 1879. This product was the result of accidentally over-stirring a batch osoap, and the resulting infusion of air bubbles made it float. It was an instant hit.During the Great Depression, with distribution failing and money in short supply,homeowners began searching for soap recipes. It was during this desperate period thatdaytime radio dramas were introduced to the America home, sponsored by companiesseeking to market their soap. Today, they¶re on TV instead of the radio, and we knowthem as ³soap operas.´The creation of the first synthetic detergents came in 1916. Since then, detergents andsurfactants have gradually replaced the more natural oils in personal cleansing products.Sales of detergents surpassed soaps for the first time in 1953. Further refinementsincluded the introduction of dishwashing powders, liquid hand cleaners and detergentsfor laundering in cold water. Today, most laundering and personal cleansing products arecompletely synthetic.For centuries, soap has been made with animal fats as a byproduct of farming. Old-

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