What do Animal Fat, Wood Ash and the “Days of Our lives” Have in Common?

By Alan Knight

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Believe it or not, the answer fits in the palm of your hand: Soap! 

The history of soap making and usage goes hand-in-slippery-hand with the history of bathing.  (See our previous blogs, “History of European Bathing …” “Bathtubs in the Old West,” and “The Birth of the Bathtub.”)

Soaps ― there are many different kinds ― are mainly used as surfactants for washing, bathing, and cleaning, but they’re also used in textile spinning, as antiseptics, for various medicinal purposes (such an antidote for various types of poisoning) and are components of certain types of lubricating greases. Soaps are also used for decorative purposes.

What’s in a Name? 

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There are two schools of thought concerning the origin of the word, “soap.” One legend has it that soap was named for the fictional Mount Sapo, which was supposedly near Rome in Italy, where ancient Romans made burnt animal sacrifice offerings to their pantheon of deities. The wood ash and animal grease resulting from such sacrifices formed a primitive kind of soap.  However, another school of thought says the word “soap” hails from Europe's ancient Celts, whose animal fat/wood ash soap was called “saipo.”  

Soap Through the Centuries 

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Aside from making fire and cooking food, blending oil and fat into soap is one of the oldest and simplest chemical reactions known to mankind.  An excavation of ancient Babylon revealed that the Babylonians were making soap around 2800 B.C., being the first culture to master the art of soap making.  A formula for soap consisting of water, alkali and cassia oil was written on a Babylonian clay tablet around 2200 BC.  Typically, their soap was made from animal fats boiled with wood ashes.  Initially, soap was used for cleaning wool and cotton that was used in textile manufacturing.  Also in the Middle East, 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.  According the Pliny the Elder, the Phoenicians used goat's tallow and wood ashes to create soap in 600 BC.  In his “Historia Naturalis,” he discusses the manufacturing of soap from animal fat and ashes, but mentions it was only used as a hair pomade. Early Romans were thought to have made some of their soap from urine (!). It was used throughout the Roman Empire as a topical treatment for various skin diseases.

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The purpose of soap as a cleanser appeared in the second century AD. By the 900s AD, soap was common in France, Italy, and Spain.  A 12th-century Islamic document describes the process of soap production.  It mentions one of soap’s two main ingredients, alkali, derived from the Arabic word al-qaly or “ashes,” which would later become important in modern day chemistry.  By the 13th century, the manufacture of soap in the Islamic world had become virtually industrialized.

Soap production began in England around the end of the 12th century. In France, by the second half of the 15th century, the semi-industrialized professional manufacturing of soap was concentrated in a few cities that supplied the rest of the country. Finer soaps were later produced in Europe beginning in the 16th century, using vegetable oils (i.e., olive oil) as opposed to animal fats. Many of these soaps are still produced, both industrially and by small-scale soap artisans. For instance, Castile soap is a popular example of the vegetable-only soaps derived from the oldest “white soap” of Italy and Spain, named for the latter country’s Castile region.  However, most European countries rarely used soap as a personal cleanser until the 17th century (which is one of the reasons perfumes and colognes were created, but that’s another story). Soap manufacturers had to pay a heavy tax on all the soap they made, which made it very expensive for most of its populace.  So soap didn’t become a widespread commodity until the tax was repealed in 1853.  By the 19th century, soap had become more readily available and was becoming popular throughout Europe.

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Soap making was a small scale, usually family-owned business until the Industrial Revolution.  In 1780, Andrew Pears started making a high-quality, transparent soap. His family-derived soap-making business expanded when his son-in-law, Thomas J. Barrat, opened a soap factory in 1862. James Keir built a soap factory after he’d discovered a method for extracting alkaline products from potash and soda. Nearly 30 years later,

American manufacturer, Benjamin T. Babbitt, introduced marketing innovations that included the sale of bar soap and the mass distribution of his soap samples. William Hesketh Lever and his brother, James, bought a small soap works in in 1886 and founded what is still one of the largest soap businesses, formerly Lever Brothers, now called Unilever.

Industrially manufactured bar soaps first became available in the late 18th century, as advertising campaigns in Europe and the United States promoted the growing awareness of the relationship between cleanliness and health, especially as the understanding of microbiology and disease continued to unfold.

Today, the use of soap has become universal in industrialized nations due to a better understanding of the role of hygiene in reducing the population size and virility of pathogenic microorganisms.

The ABCs of S-o-a-p

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Soap is created by the combination of fats and oils with an alkaline base.  From ancient times and even today, soap is derived from a combination of different types of fats:

Animal-based (tallow ― made from beef, sheep and other animals’ fat suet, which is the hard, white fat on the kidneys and loins of animals)

Plant-based (beeswax, canola, cocoa butter, coconut, olive, laurel, palm, peanut, soybean, etc.)

In a process known as saponification, soap is made when a fatty acid comes in contact with an alkali.  When fats or oils are combined with a strong alkali, the alkali first splits the fats or oils into fatty acids and glycerin.  The glycerin is a useful by-product, which can be left in the soap product as a softening agent, or extracted for other uses.

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When soap is used for cleaning, it enables various previously insoluble particles (dirt, grease, debris, microorganisms, etc.) to become soluble in water, which can then be rinsed off.  For instance, oils and fats are normally insoluble in water, but when a couple of drops of soap are added, the oil/fat is broken down and can be washed away by the water. That’s how you can get things “squeaky clean.”

The type of alkali metal used determines the kind of soap product. Sodium soaps, prepared from sodium hydroxide, are firm, whereas potassium soaps, derived from potassium hydroxide, are softer or often in liquid form.

Soaping it Up

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Walk down any supermarket aisle today and you’ll find numerous different types of soap and soap-derived cleaning products: solid soaps, liquid soaps, body soaps, specialty facial soaps, shampoos, decorative soaps, toothpastes, shaving soap, laundry detergents, dishwashing detergents, rug detergents, boot soaps, and various household cleaning products.  And don’t forget all the different kinds of lubricants with soap as their main ingredient (especially as what’s sold in automotive specialty and hardware stores).

A somewhat recent “re-development” is the crafting and sale of handmade soaps by contemporary private soap artisans as well as interested DIYers.  Most of these soap recipes usually use all-natural ingredients, and some are entirely vegan, that is, not made of any animal products.  Many have delicious-sounding names such as Chocolate Mint, Bit o’ Honey, Oatmeal, Lavendar/Rosemary, Almond Nut and others.  A perusal of your local health food store and/or the Internet will bring an entire world of exotic soaps to your bathroom and kitchen.  

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A centuries-old chemical process creating what we now call soap has indelibly changed our lives for the better. It’s made us healthier and more aromatic. (Hence, more romantic?) So the next time you’re bathing in a Walk-in tub, Clawfoot tub, or a Safety Suite Shower, and you reach for the soap, think for a minute about its centuries-old history.  You may even find yourself washing with more gusto and zest than ever before.

In this article, I briefly described the centuries-old history of soap-making. I also discussed how soap is made, and pointed out its various usages, products and byproducts.  If you have a comment, please type it in the Comment section below.  Of course, I encourage you to share this article with your family, friends, and colleagues.

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Have a question?  Feel free to contact me at the number or email listed below and I’ll personally get back to you.  Thanks for reading; it’s been my pleasure to share this information with you. 

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Alan Knight is the owner of Tub King, Inc., and  SeniorBathtub.com  in Jacksonville, Florida. He has many years of experience in the antique and senior bathtub industries. His companies not only provide superior products, they are also award winners, receiving the “Best of Jacksonville Chamber Award” four years running. To contact Tub King directly, call (800)843-4231 or email alan@tubking.com.

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