A Brief History of Soap Making

Coming to you with a little history lesson, on soap making through the ages. It's safe to say, the process has come a very long way from its beginnings, nearly 5000 years ago, in 2800 BC! 

We'd love for you to share this little lesson with your children, grandchildren - or anyone else who might be interested in learning something new or finding a little escape. 

So, let's dig into the history of soap making... 

The History of Soap Making

The journey begins in 2800 BC in the ancient kingdoms of Sumer and Babylon. These societies were pioneers in the art of soap making but at that time, it wasn't quite like the beautifully perfumed soap we use today. 

These ancient peoples used a mixture of ashes and water to remove the grease from wool and cloth, in textile production. The more this ash/water mixture was used (and the greasier the textiles), the more soap was being formed throughout the process. This soap was the product of the alkali in the ashes reacting with the grease on the textiles.

Archaeologists have found this soap-like material in ancient clay cylinders from the time. These ancient peoples had started to cotton on to the fact that it was the combination of the ashes and the grease which was making the mixture an effective cleaning agent. The clay cylinders were inscribed with what we understand as saying, “fats boiled with ashes”; the earliest known soap recipe.


The Ebers papyrus (1500 BC) from Ancient Egypt refers to the earliest use of soap for cleaning and treating the human body. The document describes combining animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to form a soap-like material, which was successfully used for treating skin diseases, as well as for washing. 

Ancient Roman legend claims the word 'soap' is derived from Mount Sapo, where animals were sacrificed and rainwater would wash the mixture of animal fats and wood ashes into the River Tiber. The result was a soapy mixture in the river that was useful for washing both skin and clothing.

Romans would manually combine ashes and animal fats to produce soap products. In fact, a soap factory was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, complete with finished soap bars preserved from 79 AD.

We wonder how similar the Roman soap-makers' day to day existence was to our days here in Malton, Yorkshire, making soaps for Cosy Cottage.

The Romans used their soaps more often as a medical skin treatment than for personal hygiene. Later on in the Roman era however, bathing with soap became more popular.  

The History of Soap Making

After the fall of Rome, bathing habits declined in much of Europe leading to widespread unsanitary conditions. During the Middle Ages, soap was used in the textile industries rather than for personal hygiene. The lack of personal cleanliness at that time, contributed heavily to illness, including the Black Death in the 14th Century. This certainly has a resonance for us all in the face of COVID-19 in 2020.

In 1791 AD, French chemist, Nicholas Leblanc, patented a process for making soda ash from common salt. Soda ash is the key ingredient which had been obtained from ashes for around 4500 years and combined with animal or vegetable fats, to form soap. This industrialisation of the process significantly reduced the cost of soap making and started to make the product accessible to many more people. 

Around the same time, a Cornish barber, Andrew Pears, opened up a health and beauty store in Soho, London. Here he manufactured soap and added perfume into the product too. 

Since 1800, the process of soap making has remained relatively unchanged. Today, different 'strengths' of soaps are used for different purposes, from personal to industrial use. It's all certainly come a long way from the smelly animal fat and ash based soaps of past eras!

The history of soap making | Cosy Cottage Soap

We've also created a video for the visual learners out there. Watch it here:

We hope you've enjoyed this little history lesson from the team here at Cosy Cottage Soap in Malton. There's a Chemistry based lesson on another blog. Why not take a look at that one too! There's also the opportunity for you to learn to make your own soap with one of our workshops or make at home soap kits.

Read more about The Chemistry of Soap Making.



  • MAz

    Very interesting! I had no idea but fascinating to see how the ancients found out about it accidentally.

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