Coming Clean – A Very Potted Soap History
The earliest recorded evidence of the production of soap-like materials dates back to around 2800 BC in ancient Babylon. A formula for soap consisting of water, alkali, and cassia oil was written on a Babylonian clay tablet around 2200 BC.
The Ebers papyrus in 1550 BC indicates the ancient Egyptians bathed regularly and combined animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to create a soap-like substance.The word sapo, Latin for soap, first appears in Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, which discusses the manufacture of soap from tallow and ashes.
The ancient Chinese used a traditional detergent mixture of pig pancreas and plant ash called “Zhu yi zi”. True soap, made of animal fat, did not appear in China until the modern era.
Hard soap with a pleasant smell was produced in the Middle East during the Islamic Golden Age and by the 13th century the manufacture of soap in the Islamic world had become virtually industrialised.
Soapmakers in Naples were members of a guild in the late sixth century (then under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire), and in the eighth century, soap-making was well known in Italy and Spain.
Finer soaps were later produced in Europe from the 16th century, using vegetable oils (such as olive oil) as opposed to animal fats. Many of these soaps are still produced, both industrially and by small-scale artisans. Castile soap is a popular example of the vegetable-only soaps derived from the oldest “white soap” of Italy.
Soapmaking began in the Kingdom of England about 1200. Soapmaking is mentioned both as “women’s work”.
In Europe, soap in the 9th century was produced from animal fats and had an unpleasant smell.
By the second half of the 15th century, the semi-industrialised professional manufacture of soap in France was concentrated in a few centres of Provence—Toulon, Hyères, and Marseille.
Until the Industrial Revolution, soapmaking was conducted on a small scale and the product was rough. In 1780 James Keir established a chemical works at Tipton, for the manufacture of alkali from the sulphates of potash and soda, to which he afterwards added a soap manufactory. Andrew Pears started making a high-quality, transparent soap in 1807 in London.
During the Restoration era (February 1665 – August 1714) a soap tax was introduced in England, which meant that until the mid-1800s, soap was a luxury, used regularly only by the well-to-do. The soap manufacturing process was closely supervised by revenue officials who made sure that soapmakers’ equipment was kept under lock and key when not being supervised. Moreover, soap could not be produced by small makers because of a law which stipulated that soap boilers must manufacture a minimum quantity of one imperial ton at each boiling, which placed the process beyond reach of the average person. The soap trade was boosted and deregulated when the tax was repealed in 1853.
Robert Spear Hudson began manufacturing a soap powder in 1837, initially by grinding coarse bar soap with a mortar and pestle.
William Hesketh Lever and his brother, James, bought a small soap works in Warrington in 1886 and founded what is still one of the largest soap businesses, now called Unilever.
These soap businesses were among the first to employ large-scale advertising campaigns.
Liquid soap was not invented until the nineteenth century. In 1898, B.J. Johnson developed a soap derived from palm and olive oils; his company, the B.J. Johnson Soap Company, introduced “Palmolive” brand soap that same year. This new brand of soap became popular rapidly, and to such a degree that B.J. Johnson Soap Company changed its name to Palmolive.