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History of Soap Making

The history of soap goes back thousands of years. Records from the Middle East indicate that people knew about a soap-like substance as far back as 4000 years ago.

In Rome, the cleaning property of a gross mixture was discovered at about 1000 BC. Ancient Roman legend has it that on Mount Sapo the animal fat from the animals that were sacrificed in the fire to the Roman gods ran down the sides of the altar and mixed with the ashes of the fire.

In time this gooey mess found its way down to the Tiber River below. Women doing their laundry at the river noticed that the dirt was easier to get out if they applied the gooey mixture to the fabric first. They had discovered the first soapy mixture of saponified acid (fats) and alkali (caustic ashes) at a place near Mount Sopa. The Roman historian, Pliny gave this gooey mixture the same name as that hill, ”sapo “ which later became our modern word “soap”.

In later times, the Arabs, Turks, Greeks, Celts, and Vikings all learned about soap making and introduced it to the countries that they conquered, spreading the use of soap. At that time, however, bathing was more of a relaxing pastime or social event than it was a way of trying to get clean.  

The French were one of the first to use the plentiful supply of olive oil instead of animal fats in the making of their soap. The wealthy classes in Europe used what was called Castile soap for hundreds of years, which came from a region in Spain. Many of these soaps are still produced today, both industrially and by small scale artisans.

Coming to America, the colonist made their own soaps at home. They made lye by mixing burnt ashes with water in a bucket. They drilled holes in the bucket allowing the lye to drip out and mix with fat that they obtained from the butchering of their livestock. The melted fat and lye process was inaccurate and messy to say the least, producing imprecise results. Soap had earned the negativity associated with “lye soap/” 

The first big soap company was established in America in 1806 by William Colgate who opened Colgate & Company in New York where he was able to produce 45,000 lbs. of soap in one batch. Colgate was followed by William Proctor and James Gamble who created the world’s first” floating soap”.

It is said that they had an employee who had gone out to lunch and left the soap-mixing machine on, beating air into the soap batch. The extra air made the soap float.  Harley Proctor, son of the original Proctor named the soap IVORY after being inspired by the forty-fifth psalm – “All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, where they have made thee glad”.

Not long after Proctor and Gamble opened their doors, B. J. Johnson created his own company choosing to make soap only with palm and olive oils. He named is soap Palmolive, after his oil combination. 

The soap industry continued to grow, but most of the companies still used the old methods of making soap. It wasn’t until World War I when there was shortage of fats and oil that scientists worked on the chemistry of soap and developed synthetic materials for making it. These synthetic materials were found to make excellent cleaning agents, now known as detergents.

American soap manufacturers embraced these new methods for making detergents, but continued to make natural soaps for self-hygiene until World War II when another shortage of fats and oils came about. At this time the detergent industry took off, primarily because the military needed a good and cheap cleaning agent that would work well with the sea water. 

After the war, many improvements were made to soaps and detergents and many different types of soaps were developed. Liquid soaps were introduced in 1970 followed by bath bombs, soap gels and beads, herbal soaps, decorative soaps and most recently the return to organic and natural material soaps. 

For discussion on the development of natural vs. organic products, please go to our page on our “Organic Explanation” Privacy policy created by Generate Privacy Policy