History of Soap and It’s Origin

Written by Segovia

Date: 16 Feb 21

Although no one really knows when soap was discovered, there are various legends surrounding its beginning.

According to Roman legend, soap was named after Mount Sapo, an ancient site of animal sacrifices. After an animal sacrifice, rain would wash animal fat and ash, that collected under the ceremonial altars, down to the banks of the Tiber River.

Women washing clothes in the river noticed that if they washed their clothes in certain parts of the river after a heavy rainfall their clothes were much cleaner. Thus the emergence of the first soap – or at least the first use of soap.

Although this explanation seems possible, evidence of the legendary Mt. Sapo has never been found.

The word “sapo” first appears in a book written in Latin titled “Natural History” by Pliny the Elder an academic from Pompeii. It was like an early set of encyclopedias of the ancient world, written around 77 AD. In book 28, chapter 51, Pliny writes: There is also soap (sapo), an invention of the Gauls for making their hair shiny. It is made from tallow and ashes, the best from beechwood ash and goat fat, and exists in two forms, solid and liquid; among the Germans both are used more by men than by women.

The earliest known written soap recipe is credited to the ancient Babylonians. A soap-like material found in clay cylinders during the excavation of Babylon a city in ancient Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is evidence that soapmaking was known as early as 2800 B.C. Inscriptions on the cylinders say that fats were boiled with wood ashes, a soap-making method.

An Egyptian scroll called the Ebers Papyrus dated 1550 BC indicates that ancient Egyptians bathed in a combination of animal and vegetable oils mixed with wood ash, which would have created a soap-like substance. It is well documented that Egyptians regularly bathed.  

Moses gave the Israelites detailed laws governing personal cleanliness. Biblical accounts suggest that the Israelites knew that mixing ashes and oil produced a kind of gel that could be used on hair. Soap is mentioned twice in the Bible, but it is generally agreed that the Hebrew word “borith,” which has been translated as soap, is a generic term for any cleansing agent made from wood or vegetable ashes.

Soap became hugely popular throughout the Roman Empire, around 100 BC to 400 AD. When the ruins of Pompeii were excavated, an entire soap factory was discovered in the rubble.

Bathing habits all over Europe rose and declined with Roman civilization. When Rome fell in 467 A.D., so did bathing. It is believed that the lack of cleanliness and poor living conditions contributed to the many plagues of the Middle Ages.

By the second century A.D., the Greek physician, Galen, recommended soap for both medicinal and cleansing purposes.

Not until the seventh century did soap makers appear in Spain and Italy where soap was made with goat fat and Beech tree ashes. During the same period, the French started using olive oil to make soap. Marseille soap has been made in the south of France for more than six centuries. The recipe was first officially recognized in 1688 during the reign of Louis XIV, the “Sun King.” Eventually, fragrances were introduced and specialized soaps for bathing, shaving, shampooing, and laundry began to appear. There is a story that King Louis XIV of France executed three soapmakers for making a bar that irritated his very sensitive Royal skin.


More to Come


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