Soap Making Throughout History - Infinity + Beyond. Picture of a woman making soap bars and cutting them. Herbs on a wooden table. Soap Making.

Soap Making Through History

We use it in our everyday life – on our body, on our dishes, and on our clothes. It's easy to use, does the tough job of cleaning up our messes, and can provide therapeutic aromas while we bathe. Humans have used soap for cleaning, general hygiene, and ritualistic purposes since the ancient Babylonians in 2800 BCE. While each era, culture, and region has added their own spin to soap making, the basic recipe hasn't changed much in nearly 5,000 years! Let's talk about who the Dirty Dans were throughout history and who really cared about soap.
Historically, very little has changed when it comes to soap making. The Babylonians were credited with the invention of soap in 2800 BCE. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and even Vikings were known to use soap. Their recipes often included:
  • Animal Fat or Oil
  • Lye
  • Ash (Wood Ash, Potash, or Soda Ash)
This was the basic recipe used from the beginning of soap through modern times. While each culture, time, and region added its own flair to soap making, the ingredients only changed due to what was more readily available at the time.
Babylonian Soap Making. Traditionally made soap bars are stamped with arabic script. Golden stamper visible on the side of the image. Bars of soap are green and gold swirled.
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Handcrafted classic soap bars from the Middle East. Photo Credit: BBC Science

Soap Making, Ancient Cultures, and Vikings – Oh, my!

As previously mentioned, the OG Soap Makers, the Babylonians, are credited with the invention of soap and soap making. They created a soap-like substance that was used to clean their bodies, clothes, and for medicinal purposes. The Babylonians believed that the use of soap helped to protect them from disease and kept them healthy.
The Ancient Egyptians primarily used a type of soap made from fats and oils, like the Babylonians, but also added alkaline salts in their soap making. The resulting soap was softer than what we know as soap today but more firm than their predecessor's soap and was often scented with a variety of herbs and spices. Common scents associated with Ancient Egyptian soaps are frankincense, myrrh, and cedarwood.
The history of soap among Ancient Greeks and Romans was very similar to the Egyptians and Babylonians, both in ingredients, soap making process, end product. Even though ancient Romans were known for their public baths, they were not historically known for cleanliness. Depending on the region, both Ancient Greek and Roman soaps could be scented with natural herbs or aromatics like lavender, rosemary, thyme, and chamomile.
The Vikings used soaps that were made from animal fat, ash, and lye (just like most other previous soap making) and were used to clean hands, faces, and hair. The soap was stored in small leather or wooden boxes, which were often decorated with intricate wood carvings and designs. Their soaps were often lye-heavy, meaning they had a high concentration of potassium. Vikings would leave soap on their hair and beards for extended periods of time to allow the potassium to act as a bleaching agent to obtain the sought after blonde-haired look. Aside from creating beautiful hair, Vikings believed that cleanliness was important and so they regularly bathed and washed their clothes.

Soap Making during the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, soap was a valuable trade item. Soap was often shaped into balls or cakes. The soap was often scented with herbs and flowers known to have medicinal properties. Soap making was a complex process, making it a regular trade skill with its own guild, but it could also be made at home with the right know-how. The popularity of soap in the Middle Ages was due to its numerous practical uses, but it was also seen as a symbol of wealth and status.
Soap Making Throughout History - Infinity + Beyond. Picture from the Middle Ages of a mother bathing a child in a washtub. Image is primarily red, cream, green, and yellow.
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A Middle Ages bathing scene depicting a mother with a child in a washtub. Photo Credit: Quora

Coming to America – The Soap History Version

So far, we have discussed ancient and Middle Age European soap uses – but what about soap uses in America? Welcome to colonial times! The biggest difference between early American and European soap making was the ingredients used. Until now, all of our soap making recipes have been very similar to the original. European and ancient cultures used animal fats and lye, while American colonists relied on plant-based oils such as olive, coconut, or palm. The result was a milder, less irritating soap that was better suited to the environment and lifestyle of early American settlers. This is much like the common Castile soap we know today.
Little did the American settlers know that Native Americans had already been soap making for a variety of uses. Native Americans have a long and rich history of using soap made from herbs and other natural ingredients. Many tribes used a combination of plants, such as yucca root, soapweed, and wild cherry bark, to create a lathering soap. The roots of many of these plants contain a natural compound called saponin, that makes foam when mixed with water. The root would be pounded between rocks, and then people would rub the smashed-up root between their hands to get foamy saponin on their hands, and then rub their hands on their body or hair to wash. This type of soap was thought to be good for curing dandruff. Many people still use these plants for washing today. Additionally, some tribes used soap as a symbol of peace when entering peace talks and negotiations with other tribes.
Soap Making Throughout History - Infinity + Beyond. Soaproot Plant picture. Plant is bright green with thin offshooting leaves. Dirt around the plant is clay looking and dark brown.
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Soaproot Plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum). Photo Credit: Belvedere

Soap Making in the 16th through 19th Centuries

Fast forward a bit to the 16th century! In the 16th century, soap was not as widely used as it is today. It was considered a luxury item, due to its rarity and the time and effort it took to make. Soap making was still primarily using animal fat and ash, and was used for washing clothes and various medical applications, such as treating wounds and skin diseases. However, people did not use soap to regularly wash their bodies or hair until later in the century.
In the 17th century, soap was still a valuable commodity, and was often taxed by governments. Soap making was an important craft in many countries, not just in the U.S., and was often done by professional soap-makers. It was during this time that the first soap patent was issued in America.
In the 18th century, soap was still considered a luxury item made from animal fats, wood ashes, and alkaline salts (mimicking the ancient Egyptian recipe). Soap makers used a variety of soap making techniques to produce a variety of different colors and shapes. Popular shapes often included animals, fruits, and flowers. In addition, they would often scent the soap with essential oils, herbs, and spices. Although soap was expensive and not available to everyone, it was an important part of life during the 18th century.
At the turn of the 19th century, people often handmade their own soap at home, using wood ashes and animal fats, though it was also possible to buy soap from the local market or shop, as soap making had become a full-blown manufacturing industry. Soap was considered an important part of personal hygiene and was used both for cleaning hands before and after meals, eliminating odors, and used to help treat conditions such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis. By the 1940s synthetic detergents were mass-produced as an alternative to the historically made soaps, marketed for skincare, household, and laundry use. In the 1960s, antibacterial soaps were introduced and produced for households worldwide.
Soap Making Throughout History. Image of Actress Jeanne Crain balancing soap bubble on her index finger as she luxuriated in a bath in a scene from the 1946 movie, Margie. Photo from Life Pictures. Soap Making.
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Actress Jeanne Crain balanced a soap bubble on her index finger as she luxuriated in a bath in a scene from the 1946 movie, Margie. Photo Credit: Peter Stackpole/ Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Soap as We Know It

The 20th century saw a surge in the production of soap and its use in personal hygiene. Soap production increased significantly, and new formulations of soap were created to meet the needs of different skin types. Soap became an essential part of personal hygiene and its base recipe was used in all sorts of products from laundry detergent to shampoo. In the late 20th century, soap was also still used for medicinal purposes, such as to treat skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis. Soap has become an essential part of modern life and it is used by millions of people around the world every day. With a variety of soaps available, both with and without detergents, it is important to understand what is actually in the soap on the shelves. We'll talk more about that in the next post.
This post contains links to Infinity Soap Company products.
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