History is written by the victors, as evidenced even by tales of the invention of soap making. A cursory search for the “history of soap making” on the web will bring up the popular story that soap was first created by the Romans, who discovered it underneath a sacrificial temple on Mount Sapo. This story goes that animals were sacrificed, then burned at the temple on the hill – the resulting fats and wood ash combined as rainwater washed them down the hill. Townspeople washing their clothes in that part of the Tiber River found that their clothes were left much cleaner than elsewhere.
However, the cleansing ability of alkali wood ash solutions, in combination with the fatty acids of oils pre-dates the Romans by as much as 2,000 years. Cuneiform tablets written in Sumerian (the earliest human written language, created in ancient Mesopotamia) describe the process of creating these solutions. The earliest known use for these solutions was to remove the oils from wool and cloth so that they could be dyed.
Pliny, the ancient Roman historian, describes the process of soap making using goat tallow (rendered fat) and wood ashes, but himself credits the Gauls for the invention of soap, which he claimed they used to give “a reddish tint to the hair.” By the 1300s, soap was such an important commodity for the clothing industry (not personal hygiene) that large swaths of forest in Europe were being destroyed in order to create wood ash.
As each culture grew, they developed and perfected their own soap making recipes using different types of fats and wood ash solutions. By the seventeenth century, soaps were typically made with whale blubber, tallow, or olive oil.
Soap making remained much the same for 3,000 years until in 1916, in response to a shortage of fats available, the Germans created a synthetic detergent from alkyl sulfonates. Over the next fifty years, the detergent formula continued to be adapted to various cleansing uses, particularly alcohol sulfonates used in shampoos. By the 1950s, synthetic detergents had taken the place of most true soap in all situations – from laundry to personal hygiene.
Today, the popular organic movement has begun to swing the pendulum back from synthetic detergents and towards more natural products that follow traditional soap making processes, such as the true cold process soap making we utilize here at Botanie.