Where soap came from:
Soap featured very early on in the history of mankind, probably somewhere between 10,000 and 5,000 years BC. The first written record of it dates from 2500 BC and is to be found on a tablet found in Mesopotamia and written in Sumerian. It refers to soap being used to wash wool. (LEVEY. M., The Oldest Soap in History – Temple University Philadelphia – 1957). Another tablet written in Sumerian and dating from 2,200 BC describes the use of soap for medical purposes. (LEBLANC. R. Le savon de la préhistoire au XXIe siècle- 2001).
Where the word “soap” comes from:
Some people trace its etymology to SAVONA (an Italian town on the coast of Liguria not far from GENOA) and others to Mount SAPO, a site where, according to an ancient Roman legend, animals were sacrificed (the rain mixed fat and ashes, thus producing a soap that streamed down into the Tiber, where the women used the “mixture” to wash their linen…). In 70 AD, the Gauls were using the word SAPO to refer to a sort of pomade obtained from goat fat and ashes and applied to the hair to maintain its shine. It is likely that the Phoenicians exported their soap making know-how. We must not forget that they were the people who built the city of Phocaea in 600 BC, better known today as MARSEILLE, and as we now know that the Celts maintained very close relations with the Phoenicians…
Age of majority:
It may be thought that soap reached the age of majority around 1000 AD, at which time the Arabs, Turks, Vikings and Celts were all making soap. The latter took their know-how to England in the early 10th century, and consumption then spread to the whole of the European continent.
The lye used in those days was not the soda commonly known as caustic soda. They actually used naturally occurring sodium carbonates that could be collected on the shores of a number of salt lakes, or obtained by burning plants (saltwort). The Arabs were highly skilled in these arts by 800. However, lye of this type did not give a soap of the quality we know nowadays, being a product with a low soap concentration and a large number of impurities. Moreover, its alkalinity (residual lye) was not fully controlled.
French chemist Nicolas LEBLANC gave soap a second lease of life. In 1791, he succeeded for the first time, with financial backing from the Duke of Orléans, in obtaining caustic soda in his factory in Marseille. These days, caustic soda is largely obtained by sodium chloride electrolysis. It is a co-product of the PVC industry, which consumes large quantities of chloride produced by the same process.
Animal fats and vegetable oils:
What fats did the Sumerians have at their disposal four millennia ago? Basically, goat and mutton fat, and perhaps fat from camels and cattle. They also had all sorts of oils, such as safflower and sesame oil, which they kept for preparing food.
Then came the olive tree, which was to be grown in Syria and Greece from ancient times and subsequently spread right round the Mediterranean basin.
Soaps were initially manufactured in pomade form, then olive oil became available, man learned to make lye from plants, and then he very probably invented hard soap, which was improved in Marseille in the wake of Nicolas LEBLANC’s invention of caustic soda.
It may nevertheless be thought that soap-making Europe split in two between 800 and 1000 AD: the Mediterranean basin had vegetable lye and used its abundant olive oil to produce “hard” soap, whereas the rest of Europe (the north) had potash and used animal fats, rapeseed oil, linseed oil etc. to produce liquid or soft soap.
Nowadays, the best compromise, technically speaking, for a soap in terms of lathering and performance is a mixture of roughly 80 parts oil rich in fatty acids with 16 carbon atoms (to give the soap hardness) to 20 parts oil rich in fatty acids with 12 carbon atoms (lathering). This being so, the choice is limited: tallow (beef fat) or palm oil (oil extracted from palm fruit pulp) for fatty acids with 16 carbon atoms and palm kernel oil (extracted from palm fruit kernels) or oil of copra (coconut) for fatty acids with 12 carbon atoms. Olive oil can be used, but the soap will be softer and will give less lather, The other oils, such as linseed and rapeseed, may be used, provided a shower smelling of fried potatoes is acceptable. These oils very quickly turn rancid and are not sufficiently stable for use in soap making.
To sum up, history shows that man has always used resources that are readily accessible, whether because they occur in nature or because there is a port fostering trade nearby.
Soap Factories and Master Soap Makers
A. A soap factory
This is a place where soap is manufactured by an alkali (soda or potash) acting on a fat (oil or natural fat) or fatty acids. Places that merely colour, scent, mould and pack soaps made from soap noodles (crude soap base in noodle form) are not soap factories. To help our readers understand the difference, we might draw a comparison with “the bakery” and “the bread retailer”! Sad to say, a lot of companies call themselves “soap factories” and say they sell “Marseille soap,” whereas they merely “scent, mould and pack” soap obtained from noodles imported from southeast Asia. This appropriation of the legacy of know-how handed down by the Master Soap Makers and, even more so, by the Master Marseille Soap Makers, clearly pays dividends in marketing terms. The fact nonetheless remains that it is fraudulent and, first and foremost, presumptuous in the extreme. How many people in France are capable, these days, of saponifying a 20-tonne “vat”? How many of us are there left?
B. The Master Soap Maker
Historically speaking, the master soap maker is the man with the skills and the know-how for performing saponification (reaction between soda or potash and fat). Indeed, his was a very important position in olden days, as the know-how was passed on by word of mouth. A master soap maker is to be found solely in a soap factory as defined above. Even there, the title is heedlessly bandied about and much abused.