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The Short History of Soap

By Edited Nov 25, 2015 0 0

Handmade Soap
Credit: Arte-Soap.com

Nowadays aesthetic and fashion is dominating many aspect of our life. Magazines, television and even radio shows are populated by nice looking, slick and ultra fashionable people and even if they are not so nice-looking, Mr. Photoshop may come and help!

Well, if you have a fashion magazine close by, just open it and you will discover that cosmetics is a big part of the fashion business which is today booming thanks to the increasing influence that these products (finally) have on males.

But wait, did you know that this everlasting love-story between chemistry and beauty started thousands of years ago and by pure chance?

Yes, everything started at least 4800 years ago. In fact researchers found traces of soap in the Babylon region where this product could have been used for its cleansing properties or as an early hair-styling product. Also Egyptians used soap and perhaps they started to use it to wash clothes. It is in fact since more than 3000 years that soap and its properties intersected with a primitive form of fashion in order to restore the original quality of clothes after extended periods of use.

Soap itself is pure chemistry (not to be discussed here) and its discovery is not the result of intense studies but rather a matter of chance (and observation): ancient populations were used to burn bodies of dead people and animals (both for religious and health precaution reasons) by using wooden funeral pyres. These rituals often took place in close proximity to a river where ashes were consequently dispersed. The combination of fat, ashes and water favored the so called saponification process that, needless to say, is the essence of soap. Soon and probably by accident, people discovered that bathing or washing clothes downstream gave much better results and proved to be much more effective with respect to upstream locations. Thanks to these observations, they soon established a correlation between the byproducts of cremation and the cleansing effects leading to the consistent use of the first soap-based products like for example clay extracted from the bottom of the river.

The first true golden-age of soap came with the Romans and their thermal baths. It is in this context of richness and at the core of a rising military empire that soap started to be connected with prestige, luxury and privileges. At the same time the effects of soap on the hygienic condition of a certain part of the population influenced positively the public health partially reducing the incidence of certain diseases. 

The expansion of the Roman empire has certainly been a mean for the diffusion of soap around Europe first and toward the eastern countries. Japan in particular, still famous today for its hot springs started to develop its own soap culture.

The decline of the Roman hegemony led to the first dark-age of soap. Perhaps one should call it dirty-age of soap since the fading out of the bathing traditions was rapidly followed by a long period characterized by heavy problems of public health like the Black Death plague that devastated Europe in 1348-1350.

Soap started to be used again in the 17th century and again its use was limited to a very restricted circle of wealthy rich and noble persons. Once more soap was an indiction of status and again was a try luxury product.

It took still two hundred years until man could really master the chemistry behind the soap. It is in fact at the beginning of the 20th century that soap recipes could be stabilized and industrialized leading to the first  large scale production facilities. It is important to realize that the industrialization of this chemical product did not necessarily mean that the quality and the genuinely of ingredients dropped, in this phase was the scale of the production that grew.

The first World War and the sudden scarcity of primary materials forced the chemists of that time to study alternative solutions to produce products that could guarantee the same beneficial effects of soap especially in terms of hygiene. It is in this period that chemistry really revolutionized the original recipes that led to products that could not be defined anymore as "soap". These new generation cleansing products are in fact officially defined as detergents.

Most of the products that we use today are detergents, not soap. These products are not necessarily bad but are quite far from the genuine and natural recipe that was passed on generation by generation for thousands of years. Today, fortunately I would say, soap is experiencing a third golden-age thanks to the increasing need of people for natural, biological and organic products. This movement and the availability of the immense power of internet inspired hundreds of people around the world to start producing and selling soap according to the old-school recipes.  If you search on google you can find artisans and artists producing beautiful and high-quality natural products that will allow you to create a fascinating bond with our origins and our past. True, following the modern pop and mass production culture it will generally appear that these products are expensive but don't forget that quality remains also in this domain a value. Indeed, all these natural high-quality products, no matter which supplier or manufacturer (still) remain affordable for everybody and this is a true modern luxury revolution.

I am sure that you will now think differently next time you will have a simple soap bar in your hands...

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