Soap bars here at Scent From Devon are just the scented tip of the iceberg in soap evolution.

There is much debate about the origins of soap with various myths surrounding the timeline of this humble cleanser. Alas, it would seem that Devon does not appear to be part of the origin story but as it is mentioned that Romans in the first century AD used urine to make a soap-like substance, I think I’m ok with that. 

So, here’s a whistle-stop tour through some of soaps historical and mythological beginnings:

It is around 3,000 BC and the Sumerians are using a mix of ashes and water to remove grease from raw wool and cloth so that it can be dyed. The high alkali content of the ashes would have made one of the basic ingredients of soap-making. Priests of this time used the solution from ashes to purify themselves before sacred rites and found adding grease improved the performance of the ashes. 

It is in Rome around 1,000 B.C. at Sapo Hill, the women are washing their clothes in a small tributary of the River Tiber, located below a religious site where animal sacrifice takes place. They have started to notice that the clothes became cleaner with the soapy clay which is dripping down the hill and into the water. This has been made by animal fat soaking through wood ashes and into the clay soil.

Meanwhile, in West Africa, the successful African Black Soap is being created. Also referred to as anago, alata, simena and dudu-osun soaps, this soap is usually made by women according to the traditional recipes which were (and continue to be) handed down through the generations with variations to the original recipe. The basic ingredients of burnt ash from local plants that are harvested provide the soap with its characteristic black colour. Local plants are used for burning such as the locally derived cocoa or palm trees, or sometimes shea tree bark or plantain skins are used instead. The ash from the burnt plant provides the alkali and the fat content is usually from shea butter, palm oil or coconut oil. There are many benefits of this soap from aiding problem skins to providing excellent UV protection.

During the Zhou Dynasty in China, the Chinese found that using the ashes from certain plants could be used to remove grease. They would go on to later improve this by mixing the ashes with crushed sea shells.

During the Eighth Century the Spanish and Italians made soap from Beech tree ash and goat fat, whilst the French are often credited with replacing the animal fat with olive oil. 

It is in the Syrian city of Aleppo in the Eight Century that Aleppo soap is said to have begun its story. Aleppo soap is a special creation that wonderfully moisturises and nourishes the skin. After the Crusades, European nations sampled Aleppo soap and started producing their own variations, but the ancient city of Aleppo continued to thrive on trade for thousands of years, famous for being the endpoint of the Silk Road that bridged the East and the West. Generations have made the unique soap and the formulation has remained surprisingly unchanged in all this time. Olive oil, sweet bay (laurel) oil and water are mixed with the alkali sodium hydroxide, heated and then left to cool. After cutting, it is left to age in the shade for a minimum of seven months, during which time it will change colour from green to brown.

Castile soap originated from variations to the Aleppo soap. Europeans who were trading in Asia, the Middle East and Persia, used variations of the ingredients required since the original ingredients were not available in Europe. In the Middle Ages sanitation and hygiene reforms were desperately required with the prevalence of many a disease. Thankfully, with the arrival of Muslim soap makers to Spain and Italy in the 12th Century, the first European soap began to really take hold. The superiority of the Castile Soap to anything in Europe at the time, enabled it’s success and established a popularity that continues to this day.

It was in England during the 17th century under King James I that soap makers were given ‘special privileges’. Soap at this stage was still made using caustic alkalis such as potash (leached from wood ashes) and from carbonates (from the ashes of plants or seaweed). 

It was in the 18th century, when Nicholas Le Blanc, a Frenchman, discovered a reliable way of making sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), or lye as it is known to us soap makers, which forms the base with which soaps are made to this day. It was also in Britain at this time that Andrew Pears, the son of a Cornish farmer created the ‘transparent’ soap still known today as Pears Transparent Soap.

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