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The History of Soap Making
first evidence of soap making dates
from the ancient world, around 2800 B. C. Archaeologists found
clay cylinders left by the Mesopotamian civilization that
had been coated with a soap-like substance inside. Once the
archeologists deciphered the inscriptions on the cylinders,
they were surprised to find a description of fats being boiled
with ashes--the basic method of making soap. Intriguingly,
these early cylinders didn’t describe what this soap-like
substance was used for, and so archeologists are left to guess.
As in Mesopotamia, so too did archaeologists find
Pharaonic artifacts that attest to ways to make soap.
A medical text written on papyrus, the Ebers Papyrus dating
to 1500, outlines a method to combine animal and vegetable
fats with alkaline salts. The resulting soap-like material
could be used for bathing, or as a topical treatment for skin
diseases. Biblical evidences suggest that a third ancient
civilization, the Israelites, knew how to mix ashes
and vegetable oils to produce something a great deal like
hair gel. By the second century A.D., Alexandria’s famous
physician, Galens, recommended that his patients use soap
as a topical ointment, as well as to keep clean.
The Mediterranean civilizations—Greece and Rome—preferred
to wash without soap, but they learned about soap form the
people they colonized. Pompeii’s ruins included a soap
factory, complete with a batch of soap. Both Greeks and
Romans cleaned their bodies by rubbing them with oil, and
then scraping the oil off with metal instruments or pumice
stones. Ancient Germans and the Gauls made their own
soap out from ashes mixed with animal fat, and they used it
to decorate their hair.
Europeans started to use soap to clean their bodies
in the Renaissance, and once soap came to be widely
used for personal cleanliness, its chemical formula didn’t
change much. The soap made by the American colonists (that
you can watch made at any open-air museum) is much the same
soap that has been made since the Renaissance. The person
making soap would collect lye by dripping water through
wood ashes, and then mix the resulting lye with animal or
vegetable fat to make soap.
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