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A Story of Blood, Rain, and Fat

A Story of Blood, Rain, and Fat

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5000 years ago the Sumerians were boiling animal and vegetable fats together with ashes to make a slurry that they used for washing. Related recipes for soap made from oils mixed with alkaline salts have been found on Egyptian papyri dating circa 1500 BC, as far back as the New Kingdom.

Although there is no proof of it, a popular belief holds that women who lived close to Mount Sapo discovered soap when rain washed a combination of ashes, wood, and animal fat into the clay soil by the Tiber, where they were doing laundry. In any event, what is more definitively known is that Romans were using soap in their baths by 200 A.D.

After Rome had fallen to the barbarians in the late IV Century AD, soap use declined precipitously. At the time, the Catholic Church, discouraged bathing because it was perceived like the hedonistic and pagan ways of the old empire. Many people followed their advice, and the general lack of hygiene is now thought to be the main contributor to the spread of the Black Death from 1348 until 1350.

Nevertheless, during the Middle Ages, some people were bathing with soap. The Crusaders, for example, developed a taste for soap and brought the recipe back to Europe from the Middle East. As a result, Castile soap making bloomed in Spain during the XI and XII centuries. During the XIII century, soap made from wood ash was produced in some of the larger towns in England and by the 1400s, French mysophobes were making Marseille soap by mixing seawater, ash and olive oil.

Before the 18th century, however, soap use still was not wide spread. Not only was it too expensive for everyone but the wealthy, but most soaps had an unpleasant aroma as well. With the Industrial Revolution spread new ways of producing soap, and exotic, fragrant ingredients were imported from Asia and Africa, such as palm and coconut oils which made soap more appealing.

For many, the real turning point in making soap universal came during the mid-XIX Century in the Crimean War, fought by the British in what today is Ukraine. Most of the deaths the British suffered came from disease rather than battle wounds. After Florence Nightingale had brought hygiene into British field hospitals in late 1854, British deaths decreased. This lesson was well learnt by the Americans who, during their Civil War (1861-1865), instituted hygienic rules among soldiers. Having become accustomed to regular soap use during the war, soldiers returning from battle brought their new, clean habits home.

The rise in soap use also corresponded with the development of mass marketing and today; bar soaps are made in a three-step process.

1. First, fats and oils are combined with alkali to produce a mixture of soap, water, and glycerol in a process called saponification.

2. Next, the mixture is dried to substantially reduce its water content.

3. Lastly, the dried, plain soap is mixed with fragrance, color, and other additives, and then extruded into bars.

*Photo by Danny Rothschild

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by That Henry