A history and how to of soap

18 November 2014


What is older than the pyramids and responsible for saving millions of lives? Duh, soap of course.

The earliest recorded evidence of a soap like substance dates back over 5000 years to the Sumerians, who combined an alkali substance with animal fats into a slurry that they used for cleaning. Similar concoctions to this have also been uncovered in ancient Egyptian and Babylonian culture.

The most popular yet unproven story of the origin of soap dates back to a Roman village at the foot of Mount Sapo. Rainwater washed wood ashes and animal fat into the nearby river which helped keep the locals clothes spotless and clean. Hence Sapo became soap. Of course it is known that cultures previously to this understood the basic mechanics of how soap worked.

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After Rome fell in the 4th century AD, soap was to see itself become a social pariah for centuries. The Catholic Church in particular discouraged this as they felt that bathing in this way was symbolic of the hedonism and self-indulgence of the old Pagan societies. It is believed that this oppression of cleanliness helped to contribute to the devastating plagues of the middle ages.

In spite of being shunned from society soap was still prevalent in certain pockets of society. The crusaders brought back a recipe for soap from the Middle East, which led to a renaissance of soap production in Spain and other parts of Europe.

The real turning point for soap did not come until the mid-19th century. During the Crimean War the majority of British soldiers who lost their lives were not killed in battle but from disease. Once hygienic reforms were put in place the number of deaths fell. This new attitude to hygiene made its way across the Atlantic. During the American Civil War soldiers were forced to regularly wash and remain hygienic. After the war this desire to be clean prevailed and thanks to the Industrial revolution and new production techniques, mass-marketed soap was soon to follow.

p&g soap

Once businesses understood the potential of soap they began a huge advertising campaign. Adverts on TV were so prevalent that TV shows were soon to become known as soap operas.

A quick homemade-soap recipe from TLPC:

Gathering your ingredients: Soap can be made in a variety of ways but this method involves only three ingredients. Oil, water and lye. Note* lye is very caustic to skin so make sure you use safety goggles and gloves when using it.

Lye and water: You will need a set of scales as the measurements for the ingredients need to be exact. Firstly measure 32 ounces of water and pour it into a stainless steel pot. Secondly measure 12 ounces of lye. Begin to slowly add the lye to the water while stirring until it has fully dissolved. Note* Make sure this process is done in a well-ventilated space as the reaction between the lye and the water that will heat the water and also produce fumes.


Lye is highly caustic to human skin so make sure to take necessary precautions when using.

Oils: Allow the mixture to cool while you prepare the oils. For this recipe we will need 24 ounces of coconut and olive oil along with 38 ounces of vegetable shortening. These need to be mixed until fully combined in a separate pot.

Combining the two: Using a thermometer, you need to wait until the lye mixture has reached between 35 and 36° before you can combine the two mixes. Slowly add the lye to the oil mixture while gently stirring with a wooden spoon. After some time the spoon should leave a visible trace behind it known as ‘tracing’, which is the sign that the mix is ready to be poured into moulds. Note* For a fragrant note you can add a few ounces of essential oils such as lavender or cinnamon.

soap mould

Resting: Like a fine wine soap needs to sit for a while in order for the process to take full effect. You will need an appropriate mould such as a shoe box or soap mould to pour the mixture into. From then on it is a waiting game. After 24 hours or so the soap should be able to taken from the mould and cut into bars. The soap will need to be dried for up to a month before it can be used.

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