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Soap Notes
A brief overview to soap through the ages

Sally Pointer

© Sally Pointer.

These notes are a very basic introduction to soap. For more information including more complete references please see my website or contact me for details of my full length publications. These notes may be circulated for educational use in this format but NOT copied for resale or published on any websites without my prior permission. Sally 2005

What is soap?
Soap is a substance formed by a chemical reaction between fat and an alkali. Historically, this has been achieved by mixing either animal or vegetable fats with lye. If the reaction is perfect, no fat or alkali is left in the finished product, and instead we are left with three parts of soap and one part of glycerine. If the lye source is sodium rich, you get a hard soap, if it is sodium deficient, you get soft soap. Lye was made by percolating water through wood ashes. Most hardwood ashes will give a lye that is sodium deficient (potash lye- the modern chemical equivalent is potassium hydroxide) and this yields soft soap. If salt rich plants such as seaweed or barilla (a type of glasswort) are used, you get a sodium rich lye (the modern chemical equivalent is sodium hydroxide). Most early soap was made by boiling fats and lye together over an open fire for a number of hours. In some cases, salt water would be added at the end to help make a hard soap and also to 'wash' the soap away from any excess lye. In the early days of soapmaking, judging the strength of the lye or the quality of the fats was an imprecise art, meaning that an imperfect reaction was likely and the soap might end up lye heavy. This has led to a modern belief that most early soap was harsh, whereas the truth is that well made soap at any period of history could be either hard or soft and perfectly pleasant and mild to use. However, badly made soap could be foul, caustic and generally unpleasant!

Soap history:
The actual origins of soap are hard to trace archaeologically, and although there are several mentions of substances that seem to be related to soap in very early texts, its not until the Roman period that we get definite evidence for the production of soap. In this case though, it’s the 'Celts' not the Romans who are producing soap (Pliny notes in his Natural History that the Gauls were making soap with goat fat and beech-wood ashes, and that the resulting soap was used to redden the hair). Pliny also notes that this soap came in both hard and soft versions, so it seems likely that the knowledge of how to make both types has been around almost as long as soapmaking. However, most of our early references to soap imply that soft soap made with potash lye and animal fat was the most usual. This soap was of particular use in the textile industry where it was used to degrease cloth, and also finds some mentions in early medical texts. Relatively little mention of soap used in bathing is found until we get into the middle ages, when a new kind of soap starts to become popular throughout Europe. Castile soap was made using olive oil and lye made with seashore plants. This gives a hard, white bar of soap that is remarkably similar to modern soap. We know that peddlers carried soap in their packs and it is likely that it was widely available if rather more expensive than common soft soap. By the end of the middle ages, washballs made by mixing grated Castile with herbs and scents were becoming popular, and these become more and more elaborate as the centuries pass.
© Sally Pointer.

By the Elizabethan period we know that oilseed rape (coleseed in the early records) is becoming a valuable soapmaking oil, and that it was commonly used in 'coarse soap'. Coarse soap would be used for degreasing, laundry and general cleaning, leaving the finer soaps for toilet use when required. Tallow (animal fat) was also being commercially rendered for soap making by this period. Soap could be bought by the barrel and most larger households would have obtained their everyday soft soap that way. Hard soaps were often bought by weight or in small barrels and it was expected that many households would perfume their own toilet soap to a favourite family recipe. For those that lacked the inclination, time or skills to do this, apothecaries and peddlers carried a wide range of both simple washballs, made by mixing soap with herbs, and also more complex washballs which included fragrant ingredients or exfoliating powders in their composition. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries cosmetic pigments such as white lead were often included in toilet soaps and washballs in the belief that they helped to beautify the skin. Ingredients such as lead were toxic and did nothing to make the skin more lovely, though they may have whitened the skin in the very short term. From the seventeenth century onwards we are fortunate that many recipes for soap survive both in printed books but also in manuscript copies of domestic recipes and household hints. These show us that the hard white soaps were preferred as a base for toilet soaps, but also that a huge range of scented or medicated soaps existed. Some of these soaps included resin, camphor, lead, iron sulphate or a host of other ingredients intended to give a particular result or to treat a particular ailment. Other ingredients that were popular over a very long period of time were things like almonds, which were included in many versions of shaving soap. In 1791 a chemist called Leblanc invented a way of making caustic soda from common salt and this revolutionized commercial soapmaking. Because this lye source was more easily controlled, soap could be made with a lot of precision and soap factories could work with bigger batches with a greater degree of reliability than before. Perfumes for soap reflected the current fashions and could either be very subtle or extremely strong. By the nineteenth century there were a whole host of new artificially made scents available and these were used in some of the first 'brand name' soaps that started appearing in chemists shops. It is during the Victorian period that people start buying individual bars of soap, wrapped and labelled by the manufacturer, rather than buying slabs or tubs of soap or prepared washballs. Palm and coconut oil become popular in soap from the nineteenth century onwards, and they helped to produce a soap with a firm texture and really big bubbles. A mixture of palm and olive oils made the fortunes of one soap manufacturer for example, and they renamed their company after it. Many other soaps still used a large amount of animal tallow, and this is still common today.

Soap: Modern Soap
A lot of the things we call soap today are not really soap at all. All those washing up liquids, washing powders and shampoos are detergents rather than soaps, but they owe their existence to a long history of people using soap for all the purposes that detergents are used for today. These days it is a legal requirement that soaps and cosmetics carry a label with their ingredients on it, so you can see whether your favourite bar of soap has much of a relationship to soap in the past.

© Sally Pointer.

To do this, you need to understand how modern manufacturers label things. If I make a Castile soap out of olive oil and sodium rich lye (sodium hydroxide) the final soap doesn't really contain these things at all. Instead, the label for a traditional Castile soap would read Sodium olivate, aqua That just means saponified (turned to soap) olive oil and water (because even hard soap has a bit of water still in it). If I made an early soft soap out of tallow and potash lye (potassium hydroxide) the label would read Potassium tallowate, aqua. Again, that just means saponified tallow and water. Have a look at a the label on a modern bar of hard soap. Even if you don't know what all the ingredients mean you should be able to spot some saponified oils (they'll be called Sodium something-or-other) but you might also see lists of colours, preservatives and perfumes. Some of the very modern bars of soap that have lots of added moisturiser in them may not have much in common with a bar of castile soap at all, but in their day both have been the favourite beauty soaps of millions of people.

Home Soapmaking:
Today, soapmaking has become a hobby that many people enjoy at home. In the simplest form, bought soap can be grated and mixed with herbs and spices, moistened with water and squeezed back into washballs just like those made from the late medieval times onwards. Some people choose to start with a modern base soap that they melt down and add scent or colour too. This is often called 'melt and pour soap' and can be a good way to experiment with soap especially if it is the artistic side of making soaps with layers of colour or with objects embedded in it that appeals to you. Other people start with oils and sodium hydroxide and make their soap from scratch. This isn't particularly hard to do, but it does need doing with a lot of care and attention because all lye is very dangerous and can cause terrible burns to the skin if it is handled incorrectly. Like all crafts, soapmaking is simple in theory but a real art to get just right, and many soapmakers are still experimenting with the 'perfect' recipe after years of making lovely soap that is a pleasure to use. Most soap from centuries ago would have been made by boiling, and today this is known as the hot process method. Many home soapmakers today prefer to use the cold process method. This became popular in the nineteenth century and relies on carefully measured amounts of fats and lye, mixed steadily together until the soap forms then poured into a mould to harden. Boiled or hot processed soap is ready to be used as soon as the cooking process has finished, but cold processed soap usually takes several weeks for all the lye and fat to convert into soap. The end result is soap that can include almost any colour or fragrance you can imagine, and many modern small scale soapmakers also include exotic or moisturising fats and plant butters in their soap. Some small scale soapmakers sell their soaps and they are bound by the same regulations as the big manufacturers and have to prove to a cosmetic chemist that their soap is safe to use before they are allowed to offer it for sale. This means that we can still buy and enjoy traditional soaps that blend the best of old techniques and new knowledge. Soap making is still evolving. Although we now also have modern detergents that bear little relation to the soap of history there are still many people making hand made soap that is just one stage on from the soap available to our ancestors several hundred years ago. We can still try washing our clothes with soft soap or our bodies with Castile soap, just as people did in the past.
© Sally Pointer.