The Incredible History of Soap in 10 Fantastic Facts
Ah, soap – that mainstay of kitchens, bathrooms, and laundries everywhere. That magical bar of bubbles and fragrance that banishes stains and abolishes dirt seemingly effortlessly.
That key component of our very own Scrubba wash bag. But what exactly is soap?
The ease with which it cleans, its broad availability, its rather mundane appearance, its practical applications, and its seemingly endless history may indeed make you forget that the humble bar of soap, far from being a fully formed substance simply awaiting discovery, is actually a manufactured product that has been laboriously perfected over millennia.
If you’ve never given it a second thought, don’t be too hard on yourself. After all, we’re the first to admit that soap's rather bland image doesn’t do it any favours. Yet, working from the premise that anything comprising a major plot point in Fight Club has to be intriguing at the very least, if not downright cool, we decided to dig a little deeper into the history of soap and soap making.
To our surprise, we soon unearthed levels of mischief and mayhem that promised to make even the gritty famous film (and unfortunately less famous book) proud! Indeed, it turns out that the evolution of soap is punctuated by a number of interesting and, at times, unbelievable details that belie its humble appearance in the most extreme degree.
In short, soap is way too important to continue gracing your bathroom sink without the proper recognition. That’s why we’re here to share a brief history of soap through 10 fun facts you probably never knew, just to make sure the next time you reach for that little nugget of cleanliness, you’re able to show the proper respect!
1. The earliest recorded use of soap-like substances dates to around 2800 BCE in Ancient Babylon:
To give an incredibly brief overview that in no way does the saponification process justice: soap is produced when fats or oils make contact with an alkali and are split into fatty acids and glycerine that later combine with the sodium or potassium aspect of that alkali. Excavations of Ancient Babylon have unearthed a soap-like material produced, according to accompanying inscriptions, by a process consistent with this; namely, by boiling fats with ashes. The Ebers papyrus, dated to 1550 BCE, similarly reveals that Ancient Egyptians were washing themselves with a combination of animal and plant oils and alkaline salt, while the Chinese, during the Zhou Dynasty (c. 700-221 BCE), mixed plant ash with crushed seashells in order to produce an alkaline chemical used for stain removal. Roman myth has it that soap gained its name from Mount Sapo, a legendary site of sacrificial ritual. According to the myth, the site provided the perfect environment for the merging of animal fats and ashes. After heavy rainfall, this new substance would wash down into the adjoining River Tiber, where women washing their clothes quickly noticed the positive impact it had upon their dirty garments.
2. Early soaps may not have been used for cleaning:
Although it may seem like the most obvious application to us, it perhaps wasn’t until the second century CE that soap, upon the suggestion of the Greek physician, Galen, became used as a cleaning agent. Indeed, before this period it seems that soap, then coarse, skin-irritating, and foul-smelling, was primarily utilised for medicinal purposes, with the first century CE chronicler, Pliny the Elder, somewhat grotesquely documenting its purpose for ‘dispers[ing] scrofulous sores’ in his Natural History. In short - not something we'd be looking to add to our Scrubba wash bags, let alone apply directly to our skin. Even after the second century CE, however, the use of soap for cleaning was relatively restricted, with soap production in Europe centring on the cloth industry rather than on hygiene and cleanliness.
3. Soap production once resulted in fuel shortages and threatened the affordability of candles:
European soap manufactures were forced to overcome a number of challenges in their efforts to produce the increasingly popular product. For instance, large areas of British woodland were destroyed in an attempt to obtain enough wood chips to meet demand, resulting in a country-wide shortage of winter fuel. Additionally, the manufacture of certain varieties of soap was heavily taxed and eventually forbidden due to the threat these varieties posed to the nation’s tallow reserves, the depletion of which in turn threatened to inflate the price of candles until they were no longer accessible to the masses. Although candles may have remained reasonably affordable, soap continued to be heavily taxed in Britain and was consequently available only to the upper echelons of society.
4. Heavy taxes inevitably led to shady soap making activities:
It may sound absurd, but soap production was once heavily policed to prevent illegal manufacture. According to the Telegraph, the soap tax, introduced in 1712, was once a top earner for the Exchequer, raising around the same proportion of income as alcohol duty does today. So high were the imposed levies that the tax collector deemed it necessary to lock the lids on soap boiling pans every night in order to prevent illegal soap manufacture after hours.
5. Soap and dynamite share an intimate history:
The technological advancements that characterised the Industrial Revolution enabled soap's popularity to explode. Throughout the 1800s, advances in plumbing started to allow for more frequent bathing, while the growing body of evidence linking health to hygiene worked to convert soap’s image from a luxury good to necessity item, placing it squarely in public focus. Although soap makers were able to meet this booming demand thanks to increased manufacturing and production efficiency made possible by the significant industrial and scientific advances of the age, soap's popularity continued to grow at an alarming rate throughout the century.
The thriving industry was even further propelled by the 1853 removal of the soap tax, by scientific advancements resulting in better smelling and gentler soaps in both solid and liquid form, and by the ability for glycerine, a once discarded product of soap making, to be used as nitroglycerin in the newly invented dynamite. Finally, the advent of major global conflicts including the Crimean, American Civil, and First World War placed even greater pressure on the need for better hygiene practices, setting the commercialisation of soap on a path from which there could be no turning back.
6. Gangster “Soapy” Smith was so called because of his notorious soap scam:
Who would have ever believed that soap had so many connections – not all of them legitimate –with money and power? At the end of the 1800s, American con artist, gangster, and crime boss Jefferson Randolph Smith earned the sobriquet “Soapy” after cleaning up big time with his prize soap sell con. A simple crime designed to quickly swindle vulnerable passers-by, it involved wrapping bars of soap in notes of varying denominations, covering them with plain paper, pretending to mix them in with bars devoid of money, and then selling off these latter bars at an inflated price while maintaining the façade that some of the packages contained money.
In reality, it was only the members of Smith’s notorious Soap Gang, strategically planted in the crowd to masquerade as honest, ordinary folk, who received this money for the purpose of diminishing potential suspicion within the crowd. Unfortunately, Soapy’s reputation grew with him and his once petty crimes became consistently more violent as he evolved into a fully-fledged underworld boss, yet his somewhat underwhelming nickname remained with him for life.
7. An entire town once dedicated to soap production still stands today:
Port Sunlight is a picturesque village near Liverpool that draws thousands of tourists annually on account of its charming setting and phenomenal examples of nineteenth century English architecture. Its origins, however, are deeply interwoven with the gritty life of industrial workers in the nineteenth century. Indeed, William Lever built the village in order to provide a comfortable home for his workers following the expansion and consequential relocation of his firm, the Lever Brothers, in 1888. Naming the village Port Sunlight after his most successful brand of soap, Lever continued to build a business empire while supporting his workers by campaigning for shorter working hours, better education, and improved conditions. The town remains as quaint as ever and is today home to around 2000 people.
8. One of the most influential marketing campaigns ever began with a mistake:
The American company Procter & Gamble was one of the most active participants in the aggressive soap advertising campaigns that characterised the twentieth century. It all started in 1879 when a workman accidentally mixed too much air into a batch of the “white soap” that P&G had started manufacturing a year earlier in an effort to compete with the popular castile soaps of the day. Despite the mistake, the soap was shipped out and ultimately led to widespread demand. To help provide some defining brand characteristics and to avoid banality, the label was quickly switched from “white soap” to “ivory soap” and a staggering $11,000, a frankly colossal sum for the time, was committed to advertising it nationally. As the brand grew, P&G’s advertising gained sophistication and was eventually adapted for radio where it continued to make a deep impression upon the health and hygiene industry. Today, P&G’s Ivory Soap campaign is known not only for changing the very idea of soap, but also for revolutionising the marketing and advertising industries with its pioneering methods.
9. Soap has evolved from mere mundane cleanser to dreary daytime drama:
When P&G took its influential style of advertising to radio it started an entire movement: the dark, dramatic, often downright dastardly world of the soap opera. In search of advertising revenue, early radio stations developed daytime serials aimed at housewives and consequently began to approach household manufacturers in search of sponsorship. Good old P&G was the first to seize the opportunity and commit to a serial. Such was their success that not only did they continue to sponsor serials and eventually even produce their own, but a number of other soap manufacturers were inspired to tackle this new marketing scene. The association of daytime serials with soap ads quickly led to the name “soap opera”, a descriptor that of course persists to this day, never failing to conjure up images of dark secrets, ridiculous coincidences, breathy dialogue, weighty pauses, and piercing stares into oblivion that always seem to continue for a full three seconds after the maximum levels of discomfit have been endured by tense audiences everywhere.
10. Despite humble beginnings, soap has managed to build itself an empire:
Bath soaps currently represent a multi-billion dollar industry that is largely bolstered by an ever increasing awareness of the importance of hygiene and a thriving, almost aggressive, marketing industry. Although soap may no longer seem in need of much promotion, the advertising industry was once keen to exploit the new idea of soap as a necessity item by inextricably linking it with symbols of vitality like sunlight and honey – a trend that persists to this day. Such marketing campaigns were propelled by the inclusion of exotic and desirable ingredients in soap recipes, including brightly coloured oil palm from West Africa and copra (dried coconut flesh) from the Pacific Islands. These marketing decisions were fundamental in changing soap’s image from a coarse, abrasive scrubbing tool to a healthy, gentle, and fragrant – yet affordable – balm. Today, soap in one form or another continues to generate massive revenue around the world and shows no sign of losing its impressive global status.
So there you have it: a brief history of soap in 10 fun, almost unbelievable facts. From humble beginnings involving fat and ash to crippling taxes, refined chemistry, and formidable empires in both the criminal and marketing worlds, soap and soap making sure boast a history worth remembering and sharing the next time you reach for your Scrubba wash bag!