The Culture Of Cleanliness: A Peek Into History Of Soap

January 10, 2018

The Culture Of Cleanliness: A Peek Into History Of Soap

Official historical records suggest the first evidence of a soap-like substance harks back to 2800 BC. However, the confusion arises when it comes to this substance’s original inventor, with some sources pointing towards the ancient Babylonians. But historically, Babylonia as a political entity emerged several centuries after the stated date. So the honour of inventing soap must be attributed to their culturally-linked brethren – the Sumerians, who held sway over Mesopotamia for most of 3rd millennium BC.

Soap in Ancient Cultures

In any case, what we know is that the precursor to soap was made by mixing animal fats with wood ash and water.

The Ebers papyrus (Egypt, 1550 BC) reveals that the ancient Egyptians mixed animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to produce a soap-like substance.

ancient culture soap

 Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis encyclopedia (written circa 77 AD) mentions the term sapo, the Latin word for soap. The naturalist goes on to explain how sapo was manufactured from a combination of tallow and ashes, and was primarily used as a waxy-substance for hair. The ancient Roman author also talked about how the product was used more by the Gaulish and Germanic men rather than Romans – with the latter preferring to scrap their skins clean by using essential oils, white sand (as abrasive) and strigil (a tool for scraping off dirt and sweat).

The Celts made their soap from animal fat and plant ashes and they named the product saipo, from which the word soap is derived.

From Middle East to Europe

Later on the cultural flowering of medieval Islamic realms brought forth their hygiene-based practices, including the use of soaps. By 11th century AD, many Crusaders were enamored of the ‘exotic’ hygiene products, and as such brought  some of Oriental soap recipes to European culture. The techniques of soap-making gradually also spread to England by 13th century, where it was made from wood ash; and to France by 14th century, where the renowned Marseille soap (made by combining seawater, ash and olive oil) catered to the nobility.


Modern Soapmaking

It should however be noted that in spite of the ever-evolving soap making techniques over the millenniums, before 18th century the usage and manufacturing of soap still remained relatively small-scale when compared to the population. Simply put, the users of soap tended to be wealthy because of the high cost factor required to procure the products. Moreover due to the prevalence of ‘bothersome’ ingredients (like animal fat), many of the soap varieties gave off their unpleasant aroma.

 But with advent of industrial revolution, chemists were able to incorporate aromatic substances like palm oil and coconut essence – mostly imported from Asia and Africa, into the soap products. And intriguingly enough, by 19th century, it was war that rather instigated the mass-scale use of soaps. This is because during the Crimean War fought in 1854-1857, the British forces suffered many of their casualties from widespread diseases, as opposed to just battlefield wounds. Such adverse conditions fueled the adoption of hygiene regulations for modern armies, thus leading to the practice of regular soap-usage by soldiers, who in turn brought their healthy habits home.


And by early 20th century, soap finally made its debut as a mass-consumed commercial product, thanks to the massive marketing efforts put forth by Proctor & Gamble (P&G). As a matter of fact, P&G spent more than $400,000 a year (equivalent of over $10 million in current valuation) during the early 1900’s – so much so that the radio serials were to known as the ‘Soap Operas’ because of the profitable sponsorship of the soap manufacturers.

Developments in science and technology brought the alternatives to the old fashion soap, other cleansers - both soap and non-soap formulas - began to appear. Bar cleansers were joined by liquid products, which were first used primarily for hand washing. The market eventually became flooded with shower gels, also known as body washes, which quickly became a popular alternative to bar soap.

Shower Gel vs Soap 

Keeping our bodies very clean is very essential. Regular bath is essential and although we usually bathe with soap and water, now showers have become very popular. So what body cleanser is better to use?

soap shower gel


Bar soap is great for removing dirt, debris, and oil from the skin, and it’s easy to apply, either alone or with a washcloth. If you’re an athlete or have a tendency to sweat a lot, bar soap ideal.

However, if your skin is super delicate, dry, or eczema-prone, you might want to stick to shower gel. Since shower gels are water-based, it’s easier to get those good-for-you moisturizers in them.

So if you have exceptionally dry and sensitive skin when it’s cold, but oilier skin when it’s hot, you may prefer shower gel during the winter months and bar soap during summer.


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