Let’s Reminisce: A brief history of soap

One of my earliest memories is the old black pot my mother used to make lye soap from some of the fat leftover from hog killing. That image came to mind recently as I read a column in the Wall Street Journal recently which argued that soap represents one of the triumphs of civilization.  The point is that human beings like to be clean, and any product made of fats or oils combined with alkaline salts and water will help them out.

The Babylonians knew how to make soap as early as 2800 B.C., although it was probably too harsh for washing anything except hair and cloth. One ancient medical document from 1550 B.C., suggests that the Egyptians used soap only for treating skin ailments.

The Greeks and Romans also avoided washing with harsh soaps, until they discovered that the Celts had invented a softer formula.  One Greek physician who lived in the 1st century A.D. wrote: “those alkaline substances made into balls” are a “very excellent thing to cleanse the body in the bath.”

Following Rome’s collapse in the 5th century, the centers of soap-making moved to India, Africa and the Middle East. In Europe, soap suffered from being associated with pagan cultures. In the 14th century, Crusaders returning from the Middle East brought back with them a habit of washing with soap and water, but not in sufficient numbers to slow the spread of the plague.

Soap began to achieve wider acceptance in Europe during the Renaissance, though geography still played a role. Southern countries had the advantage of making soap out of natural oils and perfumes, while the colder north had to make do with animal fats and whale blubber.

Soap’s growing popularity also attracted the attention of governments hungry for tax money. In 1632, in one of the earliest documented cases of crony capitalism, King Charles I of England granted a group of London soapmakers a 14-year monopoly in exchange for annual payments of 4 pounds per ton sold.

Soap remained a luxury item, however, until scientific advances during the age of the Enlightenment made large-scale production possible. In 1790, the French chemist Nicholas Leblanc discovered how to make alkali from common salt.

The saying “cleanliness is next to godliness”—credited to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism—was a great piece of free advertising, but it was soap’s role in modern warfare that had a bigger impact on society. During the Crimean War in Europe and the Civil War in the U.S., high death tolls from unsanitary conditions led to new requirements that soldiers use soap every day.

In the late 19th century, soap manufacturers helped to jump-start the advertising industry with their use of catchy verse and famous artworks as marketing tools. British and American soapmakers were ahead of their time in other ways, too. The Lever company built housing for its workers, while Procter and Gamble pioneered the practice of profit-sharing.

And it was P&G that made soap the basis for one of the most influential cultural institutions of the last century. Having read reports that women would like to be entertained while doing housework, the company decided to sponsor the production of daytime radio domestic dramas. Thus began the first soap opera, “Ma Perkins,” a 15-minute sob-story that ran as a serial from 1933 until 1960—and created a new form of storytelling.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com

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