Soap (a brief history of…)

A reader once asked me how on earth do I pick some of the quirky topics I choose to write about ? Occasionally, it is a result of a joke that I have shared with someone which brings my attention to something interesting like my Bone Sewing Needles story or generally speaking, it is something that I come across in my daily grind, like my obsession with Coffee. Soap, my friends, is another one of those quirky things that literally brings tears to my eyes. Today, I rubbed soap accidentally into my eyes while washing my handsome face. “Stinging like hell” I cursed the ancient makers of soap!

The history of soap can be traced back to ancient Babylonia. Soap was discovered by Archeologists in the lining of clay cylinders dating back to around 2,800 BC. Its properties consisted namely of animal fats mixed with wood ash and when dissolved into water this amazing crude soap was able to remove dirt from many surfaces.

Evidence suggests that the Babylonians first used soap not as a bathing or personal cleanliness aid, but rather as a cleaner for wool and cotton used in the production of textiles and the treatment of skin afflictions.

The Ebers papyrus, written in Egypt around 1500 BC describes how the Egyptians mixed animal fats and oils with alkali salts to bathe in and help with skin conditions. Though soap, as we know it was still absent during Cleopatra’s reign in Egypt, who loved her oil baths.

It wasn’t until approximately the first or second century that soap was related to personal hygiene. It is believed that the Celts (in Gaul) invented or introduced soap into the Roman Empire. They fashion small bars of soap out of sheep fat (tallow) and ashes. You could only imagine how the Romans may have been disgusted by the barbarbic hygiene methods of the Gauls.

The Romans didn’t use soap, however they were experts in the use of their oils in bathing. (Romans would later realise the medical benefits of soap, but most chose not to use it)


Romans loved public bathing. This is a painting by Hubert Roberts entitled “Ancient Ruins Used as Public Baths”, 1798.

The baths to the Romans was not only a place to cleanse oneself, but a place of social networking, gossip and games. In regards to bathing, Romans used olive oil instead of soap. They would rub themselves with oil and scrap it off with a curved metal instrument called the strigil. The idea was that a series of cold and hot baths (saunas) would help exfoliate the skin prior to the use of the oil and the strigil.


The following photo of the oil flask and strigils is copyright © by the Trustees of the British Museum. I make use of it in accordance with their terms of use.

It is believed that ‘true’ soap evolved by the early fourth century, again mentioned and attributed to the Germanic people. By the middle ages soap production was well established in places like Italy and Spain. There is even mention of soap in the royal courts of Charlemagne? Though there are even suggestion that true soap didn’t make its debut into Europe until the fall of Constantinople ? They are some rare documents that point to the Ottomans virtually industrializing soap production. One of the worlds famous soap originated from the silk road city of Aleppo (in Syria).

By the 17th century manufacturing of soap reached new heights in places in Italy, Spain and France. However, not until the industrial revolution did soap production and quality really take off.  Today, we all associated good quality soaps with companies like Palmolive and Pears, which can be traced back to 1789 in London.


Finally I have not yet mentioned how did this amazing product that we are constantly bombarded with today through advertising got its name? Well let me try and answer that question by telling you the story of the Roman legend of Mount Sapo.

Mount Sapo was a mystical mountain where animals were sacrificed by Romans to please the Gods. When it rained, what remained of the animal fats and wood fire ash on top of the mountain, would eventually be washed down into the Tiber, where it foamed and formed into this mix called Sapo, being Latin for Soap. 

9 comments on “Soap (a brief history of…)

  1. I was hoping how you were going to work in that Emperor Constans II was murdered with a soap dish, but maybe that would be a bit off topic.

    • I completely forgot about poor Constans II and his run in with a soap dish! Probably serves him right for contemplating moving the capital of the empire to Syracuse away from Constantinople.

  2. When I was 16 I worked in a fast food joint and when they told me that the big vat of grease that some man with a truck picked up periodically was used to make soap, my 16 year old self said, ‘OOOOO”

  3. It was a bar of soap that changed the course of the property entailment on the first season of Downton Abbey. Miscarriage of an heir.

  4. Wonderful post! I, too, have divergent interests. 🙂

  5. The best soap is without lather…

  6. rurughoshal

    Lovely article! Loved it.

  7. vincentoreilly

    I’ve always wondered about the oil scraping in Roman baths. I can’t see how the oil could ever be gotten off so completely that the pools didn’t have a perpetual oil scum on them. Did they drain the top off at night?

  8. Pingback: Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus (1863). – If It Happened Yesterday, It's History

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