Hot Tip #151 History of Soap

The first literary reference to soap as a means of cleansing was by the Greek physician Galen in the second century A.D. By 1700, there were 63 soap companies in London, England, even though soap was still more of a curiosity than a household item. This changed with the medical discovery of bacteria and the concern that cleanliness could be a means of eliminating disease-producing germs.

Soap was hard to come by for the early settlers, so when the livestock was slaughtered their fat was stripped off and rendered into tallow. This tallow was boiled with lye-water, which was leached from the wood ashes. This (often very harsh) soap was then used for washing clothes and floors and the occasional bath.

There was no printed recipe for soap making at this time and a soap maker had to judge the strength and quality of the lye and its reactions. In 1832, the French chemist Eugene-Michel Chevreul demystified soap by showing that saponification was a chemical process splitting fat and lye into soap and glycerin. Soon it was discovered that adding palm kernel oil produced a soap that lathered more easily. Soap started to be wrapped and named to give it product distinction, and aggressive marketing and advertising began.

By 1890 many variations of soap were offered, with the five major companies being, Colgate, Morse Taylor, Albert, Pears, and Bailey. A bar of Colgate's Cashmere Bouquet cost 25 cents, rather costly when a quart of milk was 5 cents. In 1933 Procter and Gamble introduced the first household synthetic detergent, and in 1947, Tide, the first non-soap heavy-duty laundry product hit the shelves.

Now in the 21st century, a person will find that most soap bars in the grocery store are actually synthetic detergents.


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