The History of Soap Making

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July 2005

How Soap Came To Be

There are records from the middle east that indicate people knew about soap as far back as 4000 years ago. That stuff wasn't at all like the soap we're familiar with now though. It was a gross mixture of oil and ashes. Apparently the cleaning properties of this gross mixture was discovered in Rome at about 1000 BC.

According to the story, the animal fat from the animals that were sacrificed in the fire to the Roman gods ran down the sides of the altar and mixed with the ashes of the fire. In time this goopy mess found its way down to the banks of the Tiber River where women would do laundry by pounding the dirt out with rocks.

What the women found was that dirt was easier to get out if the goopy junk was applied to the fabric first. The first miracle cleaner had been discovered by accident at a place near a hill called "Sapo". And so the Roman historian Pliny, gave this "gross confection" the same name as the hill. In time "sapo" became our modern word "soap". Romans only used soap in the laundry. They never used it on the skin because it was crude stuff and it could damage the skin.

Soap is made by cooking fats and oils with toxic materials such as lye, caustic soda or potash. In order for the result not to be well... disgusting, you must have just the right amount of each ingredient. Too much of one raw material and the soap is greasy and won't lather. Too much of another ingredient and the soap is grainy and strong.

As with all things, people began to specialize in the manufacturing of soap. The best soaps were known to come from the Castile region of Spain, where olive oil instead of animal fat as used in the making of the soap. The wealthy classes in Europe used Castile soap for hundreds of years.

In the American colonies, people made their own soaps at home. They made lye by mixing burnt wood ashes with water in a bucket. The lye dripped out of holes drilled in the bottom of the bucket. They got the fat they needed from the butchering of livestock. The animal fat was melted and mixed with the lye until it formed soap. As you can imagine, it was a nauseating (and dangerous) process. In America, the first commercial soap making companies came on the scene in the early 1800s. People were happy not to have to make their soap anymore and these early soap entrepreneurs were very successful.

What Soap Actually Does

Your skin produces oil called: "sebum". This oil traps dirt. Since oil and water don't mix, it takes more than water to wash off this dirty sebum. That's where soap comes in. Soap will mix with oil and water. Soap molecules are made of the elements: carbon, hydrogen, sodium and or potassium. The molecules contain a long string of carbon and hydrogen atoms (sometimes called hydro-carbons) at one end and the potassium or sodium at the other. The hydrogen/carbon side of the soap molecule attracts oils and rejects water. The sodium or potassium side of the soap molecule attracts water. As a person lathers up with soap, the soap molecules move around latching onto the dirty sebum oils eventually carrying them down the drain.

How Soap Is Made

Making soap involves a chemical reaction. Soap is made when two chemicals are brought together. The two chemicals are classified as an acid and a base or alkali. When an acid and a base are brought together, salt is formed. Soap is essentially a salt that forms when a weak fatty acid (animal fat or vegetable oil) is brought together with a strong base such as lye. Since the fatty acid is of the "weak" variety, and the base is of the strong variety, the resulting soap tends to be on the base or alkaline side of the spectrum.

Why We Stink

People that do not bath regularly can be smelled from a mile away. (Ok that's an exaggeration but not much!) What's happening on their bodies is germs or bacteria are growing on their skin. These living organisms feed on the oily sebum. As they multiply they make themselves known by their unpleasant aroma. "Deodorant soap" contains a substance that kills bacteria or at least retards its growth.

All things go full circle. Now days some people enjoy making soap again and many are quite good at it. These modern day soap entreprenuers are making large volumes of perfectly balanced soaps. The soaps lather well, soften your skin and are offered in a variety of popular scents. At Black Pearl Botanicals we are proud to offer some of the finest handmade soaps available that are produced to our specification by an expert soaper with years of experience. You can be sure that the bar you receive will be of the highest quality. Choose from Monoi de Tahiti Gardenia Scented Soap or a Lavender Shea Butter Bar Soap. Visit our retail web store at

Jill's Signature

Copyright 2005
*note Reference for this article is: The Secret Life of Cosmetics by Vicki Cobb, first edition copyright 1985 ISBN 0-397-32121-X

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