A Brief History of Soap

     The most common method of making soap involved boiling wood ashes and animal fats together.  Early soapmakers usually had no idea what happened.  It took much trial and error, mainly failures and lots of luck before usable bars were produced.

     The earliest references to soapmaking appear around 2,800 BC in Babylon, where it was used to clean fibers before they were woven into cloth.  It is possible, however, that soap could have been discovered back in prehistoric times, where people might have noticed foam in and around their cooking pots after a rainfall.

     A Roman legend claims the discover of soap took place on Sap Hill, a site often used for animal sacrifices.  The ashes from fires and the leftover animal fats mixed with rain and ran down the hill and into the Tiber River, where women were washing their clothes.  They noticed clothes were easier to wash and became cleaner at the bottom of the hill.  Even the chemical name for the soapmaking reaction refers to the legend: saponification.

     the Roman historian, Pliny, wrote about soap made from goat tallow and wood ashes, with salt added to harden the bars.  The ruins at Pompeii included a soap factory.  records show, however, that soap was not typically used for bathing.  Some modern historians believe the Celts used soap for bathing and washing first.  Frequent contact with the Celts may have popularized the use of soap in the Roman world.  Some speculate that the legend of Sapo Hill was created by the Romans to validate their claim.

     During the Dark Ages soap production decreased in Europe.  In the 8th Century, Italy and Spain revived the craft, whose popularity slowly spread to France and then England in time.  As the Plague spread, people bathed less, though soap was still used for washing clothes and personal cleaning.

     While bathing remained unpopular up until the 18th Century, keeping one's surroundings clean was quite important.  The first American settlers brought a large supply of soap with them.  After a few years, the colonists realized they could save much money and time by using the plentiful resources at hand by making their own soap.

     This difficult task took place once or twice a year.  People saved up their animal fats, cooking grease and wood ashes for months.  the fats were rendered--cleaned--by boiling them with water, then adding more water and letting the mixture cool.  The next day the clean fat was skimmed off the top.  To make lye, the colonists built bottomless barrels or hoppers and lined them with rocks and straw.  They added the wood ashes and poured rain water over them.  The lye solution would drip out of the bottom of the barrel or hopper and was collected in a small pot.  The fats and lye solution were placed in a large kettle over an open fire and boiled until soap was made.  This method produced soft, brown soap, which was stored in barrels and scooped out as needed.  To make hard bars, salt was added, but salt was so expensive that most people chose not to waste it on soap.  Soapmaking was definitely a challenge.  Sometimes the lye solution was too strong, sometimes it was too weak.  Without recipes, colonists had to guess at the amounts of fats and lye to use, as well as the cooking time.  If they were lucky, the colonists would produce a few usable batches.

     Soapmaking changed dramatically around the 19th Century when Nicholas LeBlanc discovered how to obtain lye (also known as caustic soda and sodium hydroxide), from salt.  Now much cheaper and easier to produce, soap became a popular commodity that brought bathing back into fashion.

This brief history has been brought to you by

Mountain Lace


RR1, Box 524, Canadensis, PA  18325

(Romerville Road)

(717) 676-5257


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