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Bubbly History of Soap

Updated on July 14, 2017
Docmo profile image

Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.

The Uncommon Common Virus

There I was lathering myself (careful!) and luxuriating in the pleasant smelling foam of the modern soap. As the bubbles swirled around and drifted off in the water droplets, I began to wonder about the history of soap. Such is the effect of the uncommon history of common things topic, I can’t be anywhere without contemplating the ‘history’ of every darn thing, it's like a virus. And I am infected.

So I succumbed to temptation one more time and decided to illuminate myself and in the process, you readers on the history and science of soap. It is a common enough item in our lives, and if it isn’t, dear reader, please move away a little. Don’t be like the French aristocrats who masked their pong with layers of perfume and talc, for, unless it is washed away with soap, dirt stays on the skin!

Who can live without soap? Much as we like the water as a universal solvent and purifier, without the power of soap it cannot remove the skin oils that trap dirt. Despite all claims to the contrary, without soap, water really can’t clean out skin or any surface of oily dirt. This is because of the basic scientific fact that oil is not water soluble.

What is soap?

Soap is a salt of a fatty acid – to put it simply. It is created by the resultant chemical reaction between a plant or animal fat (that consists of fatty acids) with an alkaline metal salt ( such as sodium or potassium hydroxide). The end product is a soap salt and glycerol.

Soaps are mainly mixtures of sodium (soda) or potassium (potash) salts of fatty acids which can be derived from oils or fats by reacting them with an alkali (such as sodium or potassium hydroxide) at 80°–100 °C in a process known as saponification.

Historically, the alkali used was potassium made from the deliberate burning of vegetation such as bracken, or from wood ashes. The fat was from animals(tallow) or from natural plant oils such as olive oil.

Although we use the name soap freely, several current household products are actually detergents rather than soaps.

Egyptian soap Making?
Egyptian soap Making?
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder
Historia Naturalis
Historia Naturalis
Al Razi
Al Razi

The History of Soap

Ancient Times

The crude formula for making soap has been found in ancient Babylonian clay tablets dating back to 2800 BC. In the reign of Nabonidus, one of the last Babylonian kings, a formula for making soap is indicated as combining ‘uhulu’ (ash) with cypress oil for washing the stones for servant girls. The earliest recorded surface cleanser!

The Egyptians, known for their bathing rituals, were known to bathe in a combination of plant oils and burnt wood ash creating a soapy substance.

It is Pliny the Elder, the compulsive historian, who mentions the word sapo ( Latin for soap) in his work Historia Naturalis. He hints that the Celts and other Germanic tribes used animal tallow and mixed it with ash to use the resultant substance as a kind of ancient brylcreem on their hair.

The wise Galen, the ancient physician/anatomist actually prescribes using soap to wash away the impurities and mentions its manufacture using lye and oils.

There is an apocryphal Roman tale that the Animal sacrifices on top of Mt Sapo near the river Tiber along with the burnt wood washed up in the river Tiber. This allegedly created a combination of soapy water and meant that the Romans could bathe and wash their clothes.

This is perhaps not true as there is no record of a Mount Sapo in any historical texts and the Romans didn’t really burn the animal sacrifices in full, saving the fatty entrails to themselves and leaving only skin and bones.

Middle Ages

From here soap making spread across the Arabic world during the advent of alchemy. The Persian Chemist ( he wrote over 180 books!) Al Razi mentions the recipe for manufacturing soap. By this time the crude animal tallow has been replaced by sweet vegetable oils such as olive oil and sesame oil., creating a much pleasanter product. The Middle eastern pharmacists added sweet smelling perfumes as far back as 7th century Ad in Basra and Nafu s.

From the 13th century onwards hard soap was regularly imported across the alps into Italy and rest of Europe.

Even back in 1500s the world was a smelly place. People rarely took baths and if they did it was an annual ritual. Even though soap was being manufactured in Europe since the 12th century it was very much a luxury item due to the heavy taxation. It’s only since the tax was repealed in 1853, soap soon became a household item affordable by the masses.

Dragged kicking and screaming to the bath.. Satyr and Nymphs - Bouguereau
Dragged kicking and screaming to the bath.. Satyr and Nymphs - Bouguereau

Renaissance of Soap Making

From the 15th century, There were soap making centres in Marseilles , Toulon and Hyères mostly parts of provence. This was presumably due to the pleasant weather that yielded high quality olive oil that was used in the soap making. Although the oil was extracted well the method of extracting lye was still crude.

For this reason soap making as laborious and often needed huge vats to boil ingredients together.

In 1790 the French Chemist Nicholas Leblanc devised a way of extracting sodium hydroxide from common salt and made soap making a whole lot easier. This lead to a clear chemical formula created by Eugene-Michel Chevreul on the process of soap making.

As the Latin term used by Pliny the elder was sapo, this process was rightly named ‘saponification’.

Alfred Stevens - The Bath
Alfred Stevens - The Bath

Industrial Revolution

Manufacturing soon spread to London and across Europe and still remained small scale until the Industrial revolution. The giants of soap making industry emerged from London in the late 18th century.

Andrew Pears who manufactured the transparent Pears Soap, The Lever Brothers William and James from Warrington who went on to form one of the largest soap making industry from humble beginnings in Warrington, UK in 1885. Now their company is called Unilever.

The first patent issued in the United States was for a soapmaking ingredient. In 1790, Samuel Hopkins was issued a patent for "making pot(ash) and pearlashes". These could be combined with Tallow to make soap.

In America Benjamin Babbit started marketing detergents and soap bars. He pioneered the marketing strategy of giving sample bars and powders to try first.Soon the industry capitalised on the concept of hygiene and cleanliness, marketed heavily using advertising and the billions of pounds worth of soap making industry was born!

Micelle, ma belle!
Micelle, ma belle!
Soap molecule
Soap molecule

How soap works?

The Science of Soap

The science of soap is a fascinating one. The salt of a fatty acid looks a bit like a sperm ( sorry) it has a head and a tail. The head is called hydrophilic ( or water loving) and the tail is hydrophobic ( water hating) but lipophilic (oil loving) . The soap molecule is indeed bi-sexual!

When they congregate together the water loving heads conjoin to form a spherical surface while the water hating/oil loving tails touch any oil /dirt/ grime that may be attached to the surface they are cleansing. This spherical structure is called a Micelle. See the diagram of how a Micelle looks like.

As the water agitates ( as we wash) these micelles that have effectively trapped the oily dirt are washed away. See the video for a graphical explanation of how we wash the dirt off fabrics and our skin.

The Various Ingredients

In handmade soaps excess oil and plant fat is used in order to keep the content moist. The resultant glycerol is also left behind thus giving that moisturising and slightly greasy feel.

The plant oils can be olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil , cocoa butter etc.

Sand, pumice or other hard particles can be added for the scouring or exfoliant effect that helps remove dead skinparticles.

Metal dust such a s titanium or other metals are sued to produce the shine and pearlescent effect creating ‘white’ soap.

The modern antibacterial effect in soaps is achieved by using nanoparticles of nickel, aluminium or silver . these have the effect of robbing bacterial surfaces off their electrons and disrupting their capsules and effectively killing them off.

Soap Opera
Soap Opera
Debbie Reynolds
Debbie Reynolds
Rita Hayworth
Rita Hayworth

Advertising and Marketing

The mass marketing of soap using Magazine advertising began and era of mass productions and high profits. The term ‘soap opera’ comes from the fact that earliest Radio serials that were broadcast in the afternoon and was largely listened to by women were sponsored by sap manufacturers like Procter & Gamble and Lever Bros.

This tradition carried on into day time ‘soap opera’s in TV.

The TV advertising for soaps that involved beautiful Hollywood stars commenced the era of using celebrities to market cosmetic products. The series of advertisiements for Lux soap involved a bevy of Hollywood beauties such as Kim Novak , Ava Gardner , Debbie Reynolds etc.

The Pears campaign used the ‘Pears Baby’ and the Fairy soap used a little girl and her mother for attracting consumers.

Now worldwide, soap advertising has taken off wildly using catchy slogans and eco-friendly messages such s the Dove campaign. In fact the campaign for Dove soap has used the mantra of ‘more cream, more moisturising’ since 1957!

Of all the modern day manufacturers, I love the Green ethos of Lush soaps. Their handmade soaps are innovative, attractive and immensely usable. They also avoid using wrappers and display their wares freely to touch ,smell and feel.

The Lush brand is spreading worldwide. Their recent ‘Ask me why I am naked’ campaign stressed the importance of how much energy is saved by not using wrappers for each soap bar sold.

Facts and Trivia

  • Long before soap was known, ancient Egyptians used olive oil to cleanse themselves. The olive oil clung to dirt and grime and this was scraped off the skin!
  • Soaps may be a good at cleaning but it is heavily dependent on the quality of the water. If used in ’hard’ water containing more calcium and magnesium salts, soaps actually make the surface more dirty by leaving a precipitate of calcium and magnesium salts.
  • In olden days when bathing was rare and once in a few months activity, it was the men who went first , followed in order of age and seniority in the same water, and the water got increasingly dirty and opaque. As the babies had the misfortune of going last, the term ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’ was born.
  • In 1688 King Louis XIV of France signed a law called Colbert’s Edict stating the parameters of high quality soap making or ‘Savon the Marseilles’. IT meant that only pure olive oil could be used. IT also said that soap production should cease in June, July and August!
  • In the 15th century bathing was frowned upon and people only had a bath once a year!. This happened to be in May resulting in most weddings happening around May/June as the bride and groom smelt their best ( relatively speaking). The bride also used a bouquet of flowers to mask the odour resulting in the traditional bouquet.

© 2011 Mohan Kumar


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    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      Thanks , Mike. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 

      6 years ago from London

      Brilliant hub, Docmo and such an informative read. I enjoyed reading about the history of soap. Great pictures to accompany your text too!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      7 years ago from the beautiful south

      Wow, what did we ever do without soap?

    • rcrumple profile image


      7 years ago from Kentucky

      Why do I feel as though I need a shower at this point? Gotta admit, when I found this to be about the making of soap, I almost turned around. Had it been anyone else, I probably would have. Only Mohan can make the development of soap interesting. Sperm like? I'm still shaking my head... and thinking, "Great Job!"

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      When I was growing up in the country, we all made our soap. We used lye, and I don't remember the rest of the ingredients ( I think fat of some kind).

      Interesting Hub, Doc.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 

      7 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Soap is such an interesting part of everyday life that we never really think about. This hub has definitely given me a lot to think about. I knew soap operas had to do with the ads presented. But I must be honest- a once a year bath? That's crazy! A fun and interesting hub!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Thank you Ishwaryaa- glad you enjoyed this hub!

    • ishwaryaa22 profile image

      Ishwaryaa Dhandapani 

      7 years ago from Chennai, India

      A comprehensive and well-presented hub! I have learnt so much from this engaging hub of yours! I was taken aback about the old fact that people had a bath only once in a whole year back in the 15th century! I have read that Queen Isabella of Spain had bathed only twice in her entire lifetime - first time on the day of her birth and second time on her wedding day!!! Once again, a wonderful hub!

      Thanks for SHARING. Useful, Awesome & Interesting. Voted up

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Thanks , Nithya. Appreciate your visit.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      7 years ago from Dubai

      Great hub, soapy, interesting and enjoyed reading. Voted up.

    • profile image


      8 years ago from Franklin

      Wow! Makes me want to hit the tub...absolutely superb!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      8 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Docmo :)

      That was both educational and entertaining. Well done!

      I remember making soap in a school science lesson ~ the smell was disgusting! No wonder people didn't wash, very often, until sweeter smelling ingredients were used!!

      I have read Jean Auel's novels about prehistoric people, and I remember that her characters used saponin-producing plants to bathe with.

      Great hub!

      And I loved your title!!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thanks very much- I will do the same and link them up. As you say they both do go together. Appreciated.

    • toknowinfo profile image


      9 years ago

      Great hub. Very well written, entertaining and interesting. I wrote a hub on the History of Bathing from Ancient to Modern Times. I will put your link in my hub since they naturally go together. Rated up, useful, and beautiful.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      @WillStarr, Thank you sir!

      @Amy, Ours is not to ask you why, Ours is just to watch and sigh! Glad you enjoyed the bubbly history.

      @Fay, I am a closet perfectionist, it's both a blessing and a curse! Thank you very much.

      @Gypsy48, welcome to uncommon histories and thanks for dropping by!

      @dahoglund, much appreciated. I am very fond of lush soaps, and was long before their new campaign, I hasten to add!

      @Genna, amazing piece of history- your ancestor created Comfort soap.. brilliant.

      @Zazuzu, thank you very much. you may enjoy the related hubs on toothbrush, playing cards and kites.

      @Cogerson, thank you very much. olive oil and scraper sound like a lot of fun!

      @drbj, I love your interviews and I am gonna look up those histories too... I agree and hope they are as much fun to read as they are to write!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      9 years ago from south Florida

      Excellent and well-written history of soap, Docmo, and brilliant illustrations. Thank you.

      I like writing histories, too. Wrote them on Beer, T-shirts, Doughnuts and Chocolate Chip Cookies among others. I'm always fascinated by all the new facts we can learn when writing those types of articles.

    • Cogerson profile image


      9 years ago from Virginia

      Thank you...that was a very informative hub...I think I might try using olive oil instead of up

    • Zazuzu profile image


      9 years ago

      this is an awesome hub! i hope you do more of these "uncommon histories of common things!"

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 

      9 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Fascinating hub, Doc. I was especially interested because my great, great grandfather created Comfort Soap in Canada and was one often first entrepreneurs who pioneered the redeemable soap coupon. Thank you!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Specialty soaps can be rather interesting from a design and art standpoint.

    • Gypsy48 profile image


      9 years ago

      Brilliant hub! Love the photos.

    • profile image

      Fay Paxton 

      9 years ago

      Docmo, I love the way you leave no stone unturned when you write a hub. You investigate and share every facet of your subject matter; that alone is up and awesome.

      I used to make soap and bath products, so much of this is familiar to me, but I always discover something new in your hubs. They are a learning experience.

    • Amy Becherer profile image

      Amy Becherer 

      9 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Rub a dub the humor in this piece...first I've heard of the "Lush" attention getting marketing ploy, "Ask me why I'm naked". I bet it IS getting attention worldwide. While "The Bath" by Alfred Stevens, Victorian looking painting depicts a woman "not naked" in the tub. Maybe it was customary to bath in undergarments, thus killing two birds with one stone? I guess my mother's comments about the French bathing habits, or lack of, must have had some validity, although I find it ironic as they are leaders in the world of perfume and top of the line skincare products today. Fascinating, informative topic that most take for granted in the ease and affordability of soap everywhere. Charming, humorous, appealing piece that makes me want to jump in the shower right now. So, go on, "ask me why I'm naked".

    • WillStarr profile image


      9 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Great Hub!


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