Thursday, November 21, 2019

Where Did Soap Come From?

We take beautiful handmade and even manufactured store-bought soap, in all it’s shapes and fragrances, for granted. But where did it come from?

Although scholars believe that soap was first made in ancient Mesopotamia, I like to think that perhaps even when Adam and Eve offered sacrifices to God and put out the fire after, that water poured over the ashes mixed with fat and they somehow noticed what was left was a good cleaning substance. Who knows? 

Pears' Soap ad, 1886, {PD}
Wikimedia Commons
There is evidence from 2500 BC that soap was made in ancient Babylonia. Vessels containing the substance, along with a recipe were found in that area. But legend has it that soap came from ancient Rome when sacrifices were offered at the top of Mt. Sapo and the ashes and fat from the pagan sacrifices flowed down the mountain and into the Tiber River where women washed their clothes. The women found that where the substances mixed washing their clothes became easier and the idea of soap was born and named Sapia after Mt. Sapo. 

The ancient Egyptians also used a soap-like substance for bathing on a regular basis, while the Romans only used it to treat skin conditions and apparently—laundry. 

Ivory Soap wrapper, circa 1800s, [cc]
Wikimedia Commons
Sadly, once the Roman Empire fell, the use of soap regularly somehow fell out of favor. For hundreds of years, people of the European continent lived in filth and endured plagues. Then, soap making began in earnest in England in the 16th century. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have bathed every four weeks whether she needed it or not. Unfortunately, soap making was heavily taxed and manufactured soap was available only to the well-to-do. It wasn't until the mid-nineteenth century that this tax was lifted.

In the 7th century they made soap from beech tree ashes and tallow from goats. The French began creating soap using olive oil as the fat portion. During the reign of King Louis the XIV, in 1688, the recipe of this "Marseilles" soap was officially recognized. Fragrances were later added and these soaps were enjoyed by the royals. 

Castile Soap

Then, in the late 18th century, the French chemist, Nicolas Leblanc figured out how to make an alkali from common salt, called soda ash. Since alkalis were important to the manufacturing of not only soap, but many other items, this chemical process was a critical discovery. 

1922 soap ad, {PD} Wikimedia Commons

In the 19th century United States, rural homemakers still utilized a process used by Colonial settlers. Leeching lye from ash water and determining the correct strength was a long process for the soap-maker. Ashes had to be collected for months from wood fires. They were placed in a barrel on top of a filter made from natural materials and rain water was poured over the ashes and the liquid was drained from a hole in the barrel and collected. Lye was considered the right strength when a feather placed in it began to dissolve! When the hogs were butchered, leftover fat was used to combine with the lye to make soap.

During that century milder soaps were made and a clear division began between harsher laundry soaps and bathing soaps. And Louis Pasteur suggested that washing with soap with prevent the spread of germs.

Marseilles soap
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.or
During the Great War, soap was in high demand for cleaning wounds and caring for victims of the war, but the natural supplies weren’t available en masse. This led to German scientists creating the first synthetic ingredients to use in creating soap. After World War I and until the 1930s, soap was manufactured in a hot process called kettle boiling in huge vats. By the 1930s, synthetic ingredients were used to create laundry detergent by the Tide company. 

Much of today’s soap comes from synthetic ingredients, though they may contain added natural ingredients such as aloe or vitamin E oil. They are often made through a cold process method developed by Proctor and Gamble rather than the hot method. Thankfully there is a current resurgence in natural, handmade soaps that can often be found in the health food store or your local farmer’s market. 

I only scratched a little lather off the the topic of the history of soap, but now I have a better idea of the intensive process and work needed to make this substance that helps us stay clean. Next time I wash my hands or take a shower I can be thankful for the wonderful variety of soaps available so readily to me today, especially with having sensitive skin!

Kathleen Rouser is the award-winning author of Rumors and Promises, her first novel about the people of fictional Stone Creek, Michigan, and its sequel, Secrets and Wishes. She is a longtime member in good standing of American Christian Fiction Writers. Kathleen has loved making up stories since she was a little girl and wanted to be a writer before she could even read. She longs to create characters who resonate with readers and realize the need for a transforming Savior in their everyday lives. She lives in Michigan with her hero and husband of 30-some years. Connect with Kathleen on her website at, on Facebook at, and on Twitter @KathleenRouser.


  1. Thanks for researching this! You authors have wonderful curiosities, I never would have thought to ask where soap use started. I have made homemade soap once with help from a friend whose family had skin allergies. We used a lye and fat process. It was great!

  2. Thank you for your comment, Connie. I have never made soap,
    but I find the everyday elements of people's lives in the
    past fascinating. I am curious what kind of fat you used
    in soap making and where you obtained lye from. I have
    sensitive skin and have sometimes bought homemade soap
    at our local farmer's market. It's a great little luxury!

    1. If I remember correctly, the lye was in a can? I believe it can still be bought. For fat my friend always used meat fat, but more like the suet you feed birds. It's solid and doesn't have any meat attached to it. I have another friend who makes it as well and I think she uses olive oil. Many people use goat milk as well.

    2. Thank you for sharing that, Connie R. I find it all really interesting and give your friends a lot of credit for making their own soap.