Updated: Aug 24, 2022
The bottles, bars and boxes of soft and hard soaps and detergents that line supermarket and drugstore shelves today give little hint of the smelly and laborious processes that were once required to keep people and their belongings clean and fresh.
Jane Chrysostom, who teaches pioneering skills in New Jersey and runs a summertime bed and breakfast in New Brunswick, Canada, brought the history of soap-making alive at an engaging Durand-Hedden program in November 2008.
The Sacrificial Lamb
The earliest discovery of soap probably occurred simultaneously in various places among primitive societies. Chrysostom explained that mountaintop sacrificial altars and even cooking pits presented the perfect opportunity for an unintended combination of ingredients that created the first soaps: fats from sacrificed or cooked animals, ashes from the fires that burned them, and rainwater to make it foam.
The chemical interaction of the fat from the meat with the alkali from the ash causes the fats or oils to split into fatty acids and glycerin. The sodium or potassium part of the alkali (which means “ash” in Greek) joins with the fatty acid and creates soap.
In Babylonia in 2800 BC and Phoenicia around 600 BC, soap was used in the cleaning of textile fibers such as wool and cotton in preparation for weaving them into cloth.
The Roman Connection
Saponification, the making of soap, got its name — according to legend — from an area of ancient Rome called Sapo Hill. At the top of the hill was a temple at which animals were sacrificed, and at the bottom of the hill was the Tiber River, where women washed clothes.
Presumably the women noticed that clothes washed at the spots in the river below the temple, where rainwater caused the fat-and-ash combinations to stream downhill, were cleaner or were cleaned more easily.
Soap in Early America
The earliest settlers relied on soaps brought or sent from England, but the colonists soon found it more practical to make their own rather than spend money on English goods.
The process was long and odiferous, and for that reason was done only a few times a year.
Potash solution, commonly called lye, was made by leaching lye from wood ashes stored in a barrel. Separately, fats were rendered, or cleaned, to remove impurities (such as meat).
The fat and a certain amount of lye were placed in a large kettle over a fire outdoors and boiled until the soap was formed. This boiling process could take six to eight hours. Soap-making was always considered one of the most difficult and laborious jobs on the farm or homestead, although soap factories were established in towns and cities as early as 1630.