I touched briefly on the very early history of soapmaking in my previous post to give you a foundation for viewing modern techniques associated with an ancient tradition.  However I thought it was worth exploring this a little further. In this post you will see that with the progression of time has come many changes in tradition and technique. 


As I mentioned previously, soapmaking began in its crudest form in the time of the Babylonians, around 2800 BC.  References have been found on Sumerian clay tablets which mention using soap to wash wool and that is was made from water, alkali and cassia oil.  Further references allude to the Phoneticians using soap around 600 BC to clean textiles fibres such as wool and cotton in preparation for weaving.  In addition to this, the Ancient Egyptians regularly used a soap-like substance made from a combination of animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts, for bathing.


It was ancient Roman legend that provided the term 'Sapo' meaning soap.  The term dates back to the time of sacrificial offerings being made at the base of Mount Sapo and with the rain, a mixture of dissolved animal fats and wood ashes from the sacrificial fires were washed into the Tiber River creating a soapy mixture deemed to be useful for washing clothes and skin.  Soap proved to be a popular commodity in the Roman baths around 312 BC. 


While it is thought that the Romans acquired knowledge of soapmaking from the Gauls, the fall of the Roman Empire was the prelude to the decline in the popularity of soap and bathing in Europe.  It wasn't until several centuries later that the pleasure of bathing and the use of soap, returned to everyday life of Europeans.


During the seventh century soapmaking guilds began springing up across Europe with secrets of the trade being closely guarded and rarely shared.  The training of craftsmen within the trade was highly regulated.  The earliest production centres for soap were found in southern European countries such as Italy, Spain and France.  These countries had the benefit of an excellent supply of oil from olive trees and barilla ashes which was used to make lye.  This olive-oil based soap became known as Castile soap and is still a popular staple among modern soapmakers.

By about the twelfth century, English soapmakers began crafting their own version of soap.  As it was considered a 'luxury' item, it was heavily taxed and therefore really only readily available to the rich.  However, in 1853 when the English soap tax was repealed, the soap trade boomed along with a change in social attitude toward bathing and personal hygiene.


Soapmaking in the time of colonial America was considered women's work.  Each year, time was set aside for women to make soap from ashes, animal fat and cooking grease that had been saved during winter.  It was mixed with rainwater as the process involved trickling rainwater through the ashes to create lye.  The fats and grease were boiled and rendered and mixed with the lye to form a thick substance perfect for making soap.

Commercial production of soap didn't actually start until the early 1600s when enterprising English soapmakers made their way to the New World.  These early entrepreneurs visited local households purchasing stored fat which, when transformed into soap, was then sold back to homeowners.  The name given to these entrepreneurs was 'Chandlers', a name still used today to describe the people who create both soap and candles. 


Initially, soap was peddled door-to-door, however eventually general stores distributed soap, usually in enormous blocks.  Customers would generally indicate how much they wanted and the required amount was then cut from the block.


Some 150 years later, some other enterprising souls decided to produce soap for mass distribution and consumption.  Enter William Colgate - a surname we're all bound to be familiar with!  In 1806, William Colgate opened a soapmaking business in New York called Colgate & Company which became the first great soapmaking company in America.


The distribution of individual soap bars began in the 1830s.  It was not long before other soapmaking companies sprang up and began creating soap bars that contained perfumes, deodorants and anti-bacterial ingredients.  Since that time, scientific advancements in the chemistry of soapmaking have made soap a popular and easy-to-obtain commodity that is used for everything from bathing to washing clothes and cleaning the home.


The 1970s witnessed a resurgence of people wanting to make their own soaps using natural and herbal ingredients.  Simplified techniques and easy-to-purchase supplies have made this prospect much easier and hence those who were bored with commercially-produced and mass-marketed products, welcomed the arrival of cottage crafters.  The new creativity of soapmakers has given rise to a love for the product and an increased demand for 'specialty' soaps.


And so it is that we arrive at this point in time where we as consumers have a great deal of choice around the purchase and use of a traditional cleaning agent.  Today, we are presented with numerous options from the relatively cheap, mass-produced bars of soap easily obtained at our local supermarket, to hand-produced, natural products with an endless array of colours, fragrances, additives, sizes, shapes and designs.  It has been a long journey for the humble soap bar.

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