Friday, 24 July 2015

Soapy Tales

According to market research firm Mintel, 87% of Britons regularly buy liquid soap, against the 71% who buy solid soap, a product which has fallen behind liquid soap sales for the first in the UK. I have to admit that I stopped using soap bars about a decade ago, so I have long since nailed my slippery colours to the liquid soap mast, but there is an interesting history behind soap of both sorts.

Somewhere in my dim and distant past, I seem to recall being taught the idea that soap wasn't invented until the late middle ages (or even post industrial) period. This is why after the Roman Empire bathing period (when they actually used olive oil and a scraper, to clean their bodies down), the peoples of Western Europe suddenly apparently became very dirty, and very smelly, and that this situation lasted well into the Victorian era for the average citizen.

Roman Bathing Practises Were Not Matched For Centuries ....

This thinking was reinforced by such historic factual gems as the fact that 'The Palace of Versailles' (Louis the XIV and The hall of mirrors and all that), only had private bathing and toilet facilities for the King built into it, and that the courtiers were often found having to use quiet recesses to relieve themselves, thus causing curtains to start rotting and some corridors to become almost impassable because of the stench.

I was also taught that most people smelt so bad (including the lords and ladies), that by the Georgian period, the rich all carried heavily scented pomades (scent sticks aka 'nosegays'), which they kept to their noses, to try and eradicate the smell of sweat and faecal matter, that they and their neighbours exuded at each other ...

All this of course, simply confirming the idea in my mind that that it was the lack of soap and bathing facilities, which caused Western Europe to lag behind both the Asian and the Islamic world in cleanliness for hundreds of years. Especially as it was known to me, that many older houses in Britain, especially terraced housing, had no bathing areas, except a tin bath in front of the fire. My grandmothers house for example, had a ground floor extension put in, just to allow a bathroom to be finally added on to it in the early 1960's.

So all in all, I had no reason to disbelieve the idea that soap was unknown to us ..... until I came across an article which suggested that this was in fact another historical fallacy.

Apparently the plant Soapwort (genus Saponaria), which derives from the Latin saponis ("soap"), has at least one species (S. officinalis), which has traditionally been used to make a soap for a very long time. It contains saponins, and a liquid soap can be produced by bruising and soaking the leaves in water, but no one knows exactly how long it has been used for that purpose, however, as it is suitable for both the skin and hair, this suggests centuries or even thousands of years of local usage.

Officially though, the ancient Babylonians were the first to make a soap, with the first mention of soap being from around 2,800 B.C. They made their form of soap from animal fats boiled with ashes, and mainly used it to clean wool, and a form of cotton for textile manufacture. Though they also used this soap medicinally for skin diseases.

The formula for this rough soap which (even when strained of the ashes), was fairly abrasive, and which would have made it difficult to use on skin, meant it wasn't made for use in human bathing and personal hygiene. However all around the region, it was produced for cleaning cooking utensils or goods, or was used for medicinal purposes, and it was pretty much used the same way for thousands of years afterwards as its use spread.

For instance the 'Ebers' papyrus from around 1550 BC in Egypt, showed that the ancient Egyptians mixed animal and vegetable oils, with alkaline salts, to produce a soap-like substance, and according the Pliny the Elder in his 'Historia Naturalis', the Phoenicians used goat's tallow and wood ashes to create soap around in 600 BC. Romans made soaps in at least the first century AD from urine, and this form of soap was widely known in the Roman Empire ... but not used for bathing, for perhaps obvious reasons.

Soap has Been Described Throughout The Centuries ...
.... in fact the Western name 'soap', comes initially from the location of its manufacture on Mount Sapo near Rome ... while the contemporary Celts, who made their soap from animal fat and plant ashes, named the product 'Saipo' ... its from this latter pronunciation that we are most likely to derive the term soap.

Whilst in Europe soap manufacture (except possibly in small local manners such as from soapwort), died out for several hundred years, the manufacture of 'Aleppo soap' by the Arabs (based on Laurel Oil and that was usable on human skin), was made from at least the 8th century AD, continued to supply both the Arab empire and southern Mediterranean. Later, the manufacture of 'Castile soap' (based on Olive oil), using information brought back by returning Crusaders from Syria, in the 11th and 12th centuries, brought soap back to the North Mediterranean area, but its use in the rest of Europe only spread slowly. It took until the 1500's, before it was finally imported in high quantities to England, both from Castile, and other areas such as Italy.

However, what is obvious from this history, is that using it to wash the human body, seems to have only caught on slowly, possibly because, until its manufacture in 7th / 8th century Syria, it was a largely local cottage industry to make it, and its was full of agents that would strip the skin, so its use was generally restricted to the wool trade.

It was also an expensive product to make in great quantities, even in Aleppo. So even the finer Aleppo soap, which could be used safely on skin, would have been prohibitively expensive to import into Europe, except for Kings and Queens etc. A fact which remained the case until 1791 when a Frenchman by the name of LeBlanc discovered the first chemical process that allowed soap to be made in bulk, without animal fats, oils or ashes, and therefore to be sold for significantly less money (his firm still markets soaps under his name) ..... further development by chemists brought this price down again over the next few decades.

All commercial bulk soap these days is manufactured via the cold chemical methods he devised, whereas the 'traditional hot soap' manufacture of the handmade soaps such as those Aleppo and Castile brands are luxury items only. Sadly of course, the long tradition of Aleppo soap, has probably been wiped out forever by the ISIS and the Assad regime bombing Aleppo into rubble as they fight for it.

Now of course soap in one form, hard or liquid, is a staple of our very civilisation both for ascetic reasons such as smell and cleanliness, but also for personal hygiene and health issues. Its general use has probably saved more lives than all the drugs ever produced.


  1. Excellent post. It's ironic that 'soap' is now synonymous with television drama series which tend to be the opposite of squeaky clean, although the story lines can be 'scented' and quite slippery.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I can't explain what sets me thinking of these subjects, just a weird brain I guess LOL.


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