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Hist-of-Soap-art - 8/31/04

"What no Soap?" by Lord Xaviar the Eccentric.

NOTE: See also the files: soap-msg, bathing-msg, Tubd-a-Scrubd-art, Roman-hygiene-msg, p-hygiene-msg, soapmaking-msg, Soapmakng-CMA-art, perfumes-msg.


This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.

These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org

Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.

While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.

Thank you,
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org


Welcome, unto my abode,...... Watch your
Step,............... I often put my foot in it.

Well..............Now I told you to watch your step...........
......Now lets get you cleaned up..................
..Ever heard of Soape Milord.........NO?...Let me Explain:

What no Soap?
Lord Da'ved Man of Letters +
Lord Xaviar the Eccentric

No one knows when or where people first made soap.  They can’t even agree on how it got its name. The online Marrion-Webster dictionary gave me this:  Etymology: Middle English sope, from Old English sApe; akin to Old High German seifa soap.  But like most things that we don’t understand there is a legend involved.  The Roman legend contends that soap was discovered by rain water washing down the sides of Mount Sapo. The fat from numerous animal sacrifices mixed with the wood ashes (from the ceremonial fires) came together in the Tiber river and the wash slaves noticed a difference in the spot.

The earliest known soap-like material has been found in clay jars of Babylonian origin dated around 2800 B.C. the inscriptions on the cylinders tell of fats boiled with ashes.  This is a method of making soap, but there is no mention of its use or purpose.  The earliest literary reference to soap was found on clay tablets dating from the 3rd Millennium B.C. in Mesopotamia.  These records contain a soap recipe calling for a mixture of potash and oil to be used in the manufacture of cloth.  Another recipe contains the ingredients of a medicated soap prescription.  The treatment of fat with alkali has been practiced in the Middle East for at least 5000 years.   The ancient Israelites had detailed laws governing personal cleanliness.  Biblical accounts suggest that they knew that mixing ashes and oil produced a kind of hair product.  The Egyptians may have added natron1 to their washing water, for its grease cutting properties  Pliny the Elder recorded the Phoenicians selling it as a medication to the Gauls. The ruins of a soap factory unearthed at Pompeii have been dated about 2000 years ago.  The Romans are well known for their public baths, one of the earliest being built about 312 B.C.E.  It is not known however,  if soap was used for personal cleaning by the Romans or did they produce it as a commercial commodity .

The Greeks and then the Romans would rub the body with olive oil and sand. A scraper, called a strigil, was then used to scrape off the sand and olive oil also removing dirt, grease, and dead cells from the skin leaving it clean. Afterwards the skin was rubbed down with salves prepared from herbs. Documents that mention this common practice make no mention of soap or bathing.   The art of soap making is thought to have been brought to Europe by the Phoenicians who settled at the mouth of the Rhone river about 600 B.C.E. So it seems there is many chances for several groups to have come up with soap’s creation.

Its purpose right through to the second century A.D.E., was strictly medicinal, for example the treatment of scrofulous sores.  Galen in the second century is the first to mention soap for washing the person or clothes.  Galen also noted that cleanliness promoted the healing of skin diseases.  Pliny the Elder, can be quoted from his Historia naturalis (77 A.D.E.; saying that the Gauls made soap from goats tallow and beech ash (potash), and used it as a hair dye and salve.  He also wrote of common salt being added to the mix, which would make the soap harden into bars..

Soap making disappeared from Europe with the decline of the Roman empire.  Around 700, soap making became a craft in Venice once again and exporting of it is recorded.  In England of the 12th  century, a soft soap of French origin was being used by the upper classes.  It was a mixture of mutton fat, wood ash and caustic soda, it retained the texture of fat.  Two other kinds of soap were the Saracen and the savon esparterois used by Jews. (Holmes, 118)  It remained a relatively primitive art till the sixteenth century, when techniques that provided a purer soap were developed.  Spain was a leading soap maker by 800 and soap making began again in England about 1200; probably as a result of the Norman invasion.  Soap sellers were hawking their product on the streets of London by the mid twelfth century.  In the 13th century Marseille, Genoa, Venice and Savona all became centers of the trade because of their local abundance of olive oil and crude-soda deposits.

In England it was manufactured commercially only from the fourteenth century.  In the sixteenth century great quantities of Castile soap were imported from Spain, while peace lasted.  The Soaper or Soap makers Company was incorporated in 1638.  For many years it was used mainly in the laundry; 'toilet waters' in great variety were for a long time preferred for personal use.  A lady who used 'myrrh water' found it; "...good to make on lok younge longe; I only wete a fine cloth and wipe my face over at night with it."  Its popularity was varied as it is recorded that the Duchess of Julich (in 1549, Germany) was presented with soap as a gift and was extremely insulted.  Cake soap was a luxury product that came into common use only in the 19th century.


Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition. Vols. 8,16. Chicago, 2004. ASIN: B0000AFX41

Holmes, Jr., Urban Tigner: Daily Living in the Twelfth Century: Based on the Observations of Alexander Neckam in London and Paris; University of Wisconsin Press;  Madison, WI. (December 1962). ISBN: 0299008541

Lucas, A.
,  Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries1926,  Kessinger Publishing Company; (April 2003), ISBN: 0766151417

"Natron.+ Soap" Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2004.  
http://www.merriam-webster.com (7 Mar. 2004)

Panati, Charles; The Browser's Book of Beginnings: Origins
of Everything Under (and Including) the Sun
; Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, NY. 10014. 1998. ISBN: 0 14 02.7694 7

The Soap and Detergent Association., http://www.cleaning/history/welcom.html (7 Mar. 2004)
Wright, Lawrence
; Clean and Decent: The History of the Bath and Loo and of sundry Habits, Fashions & Accessories of The Toilet principally in Great Britain, France, and America: Ruoutledge and Kegan Paul. Boston, Ma. Rev. ed. edition 1980. ASIN: 071000647

Copyright 2004 by Lord Xaviar the Eccentric, <medieval_man_inc at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and is notified by

If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.

<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
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Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org