The History of Soap

The first recorded accounts of soap were on Sumerian clay tablets dating back to 2500 B.C.  One Sumerian tablet describes soap made from water, alkali, and cassia oil.   At that time in history soap was used primarily for the washing of wool, not for personal cleansing.

It is well documented that the Egyptians bathed regularly and that they combined animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to create a soap-like substance for washing.  It is also well known that Cleopatra (69 B.C. – 30 B.C.) attributed her beauty to her baths in horse milk.

The earliest legend of a modern-day “soap” discovery is from ancient Rome, and most likely gave soap its familiar name.  It is said that the ancient Romans were washing clothes in the Tiber River at the bottom of Sapo Hill/Mount Sapo, above which was an area where animals were ritually sacrificed.  The launderers began to notice that their laundry was much cleaner than when it was done elsewhere.    This area was where the remnants of the sacrifice area came down the hill and ran into the river water.  It was perceived correctly that a very strong cleansing agent was produced as the fat from the sacrificed animals merged with the wood ashes and river water.  The word saponification – the chemical name for the soap making reaction, and the Latin word for soap, “sapo,” may be derived from Sapo Hill/Mount Sapo. This legend attributing the discovery of soap-making to the Romans might have been created in response to the Celtic claim at discovering the process. The Celtic initially utilized soap for cleansing wool with some evidence that it was being used for bathing and washing before the Roman invasion. It is likely that both discovered the soap-making process at approximately the same time.

Although well known for their public baths, (first built in 312 B.C.) soap was not generally utilized for personal cleansing at the time of the ancient Romans.  (It would have made the public baths lathery and messy.)  The Greeks (followed by the Romans) would rub their bodies with olive oil and sand for cleansing.  A scraper, called a strigil, was then used to scrape off the mixture, and also removed dirt, grease, and dead cells from the skin.  Herb salves were applied after the “bath”.  Throughout history people have also been known to take baths in herb waters and other additions thought to be beneficial.

One of the first definite tangible proofs of soap making was from ancient Rome. Pliny the elder, a Roman historian (23 A.D – 79 A.D.), described soap being made from goat’s tallow and wood ashes, usually beech, and wrote of common salt being added to make the soap hard. The ruins at Pompeii (79 A.D.) revealed a soap factory complete with finished bars cut and stacked, ready for sale. During the early centuries there is written evidence of soap being used by physicians in the treatment of disease. Soap for personal washing became popular during the late centuries of the Roman era, for instance, Zosimos of Panopolis (300 AD) describes soap and soap-making.

Galen, a noted Greek physician (AD 129 – 199) describes soap-making using lye and recommended washing to carry away impurities from the body and clothes.  He also recommended that soap could be beneficial for certain skin ailments.

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