About Handmade Soap




The actual beginning of soap making isn't really something that can be pinned down to a time and a place (though I'm sure there are several "It was us" claimants through time and history). 

But at some point, fats (probably animal) and lye (probably wood ash) were mixed and there was an 'I can use that for...'

What we currently know is that by 3000 BC the Sumerians were using soap during textile processing and that "Specific directions for making different kinds of soap solution have been found on cuneiform tablets."

- H. W. Salzber, 'From Caveman to Chemist', American Chemical Society, Washington DC, 1991

An ancient Roman legend has the word Soap coming from Mount Sapo, and a lovely (yes, sarcasm) mix of melted fats from animals and wood ashes flowed into the river Tiber and the by product was useful for washing. 

Pliny the Elder, that wonderful observer and chronicler of First Century AD life mentioned soap as something the Gauls used in their hair.  He also mentions the medicinal use of soap - 'to disperse scrofulous sores'. 

We're not sure when soap making arrived in Britain.  Possibly the Gauls brought it with them. What we are fairly certain of, is that soap's first use was in the textile industry, preparing fabric to take dye.

Perhaps while she was preparing her cloth for dying a weaver... let's call her Juliana Webb, noted her hands were also getting a good clean? 

By the 13th Century Bristol, Coventry and London had enough of a soap industry that large areas of British woodland were sacrificed to meet the demand for wood ash - causing a country wide shortage of winter fuel. 

In Europe Mediterranean countries were using Olive Oil, while Northern Eupropean countries were using animal fats with an extract of plant ashes and lime for their soap making. 

By the 16th Century there were three broad varieties of soap: -

Coarse Soap - From train oil (made from whale blubber, though my mind did insert a wonderful image of trains being pressed rather like olives, but I digress...)

Sweet Soap - Made using Olive Oil

Speckled Soap - Made from Tallow (cattle and sheep predominantly) For a while soap made using Tallow was forbidden - it was used in candle making and there was the possibility that using tallow for soap would mean the poor wouldn't be able to afford candles. 

Then there came the Soap Tax, while the tax was in place there was also the issue of... wait for it...

Soap Smuggling - yes it was a thing.

For those who are interested, make a cup of whatever you enjoy most and visit the below link. 

Duty on Soap - Debated on Tuesday 28th February 1832 (https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1832-02-28/debates/8050610f-346b-4b57-80bb-7cc406dd83f1/DutyOnSoap)

Back to Soap History

Producing alkali from vegetable sources was labour intensive, the material it produced was impure, yield of alkali was low and demand was beginning to outstrip supply and our historical 'good friends' the French were blocking the import of the substance.  The French Academy of Science helpfully established a competition to discover a way to produce alkali from sodium chloride (salt).

In 1791 Nicholas Leblanc took out a patent for his method. He heated salt with sulphuric acid producing 'saltcake' (sodium sulphate) then heated the saltcake with coal or coke and with limestone or chalk producing 'white ash'.  When white ash is refined it results in soda (sodium carbonate), an alkaline substance.  This meant that an alkali could be made artificially for use in the production of soap. 

With that little invention we were on the way to commercially made soap.

In 1789 a Cornish barber Andrew Pears opened a premises in Soho, London.  He recognised the need for a gentler soap than was available at the time and his bars, based on glycerine, which gave it a novel transparency that proved to be a marketing advantage.  Pears soap was first sold in 1807.

 In 1853 the tax on soap was repealed.  As an aside - one of the by-products of commercial soap making is Glycerin which meant a handy ingredient of nitroglycerin was readily available for more... explosive exploits.  (Nobel invented dynamite the same year the tax on soap was removed.)

In 1886 the brothers William and James Hesketh Lever leased a chemical work in Warrington where they devised a formula using palm kernel oil, cottonseed oil, resin and tallow, calling it Sunlight Soap.  Now called Unilever, it is still one of the largest soap businesses.


Moving into the present day

Modern commercial soap making use industrial scale saponification or ‘continuous process’ which is, as the below quote more than adequately describes, a long, long way from handmade soaps! 

“The continuous hydrolyzer process begins with natural fat that is split into fatty acids and glycerin by means of water at high temperature and pressure in the presence of a catalyst, zinc soap. The splitting reaction is carried on continuously, usually in a vertical column 50 feet (15 metres) or more in height. Molten fat and water are introduced continuously into opposite ends of the column; fatty acids and glycerin are simultaneously withdrawn. Next, the fatty acids are distilled under vacuum to effect purification. They are then neutralized with an alkali solution such as sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) to yield neat soap. In bath-soap manufacture, a surplus of free fatty acid, often in combination with such superfatting agents as olive oil or coconut oil, is left or added at the final stage so that there is no danger of too much alkali in the final product. The entire hydrolyzer process, from natural fat to final marketable product, requires a few hours, as compared with the 4 to 11 days necessary for the old boiling process. The by-product glycerin is purified and concentrated as the fatty acid is being produced.

Finishing operations

Finishing operations transform the hot mass coming from the boiling pan or from continuous production equipment into the end product desired. For laundry soap, the soap mass is cooled in frames or cooling presses, cut to size, and stamped. If soap flakes, usually transparent and very thin, are to be the final product, the soap mass is extruded into ribbons, dried, and cut to size. For bath or hand soap, the mass is treated with perfumes, colours, or superfatting agents, is vacuum dried, then is cooled and solidified. The dried solidified soap is homogenized (often by milling or crushing) in stages to produce various degrees of fineness. Air can be introduced under pressure into the warm soap mass as it leaves the vacuum drier to produce a floating soap. Medicated soaps are usually bath soaps with special additives—chlorinated phenol, xylenol derivatives, and similar compounds—added to give a deodorant and disinfectant effect. As mentioned above, shaving creams are based on potassium and sodium soap combinations.”


Obviously this method is suited to quickly and efficiently making high volume, uniform product that does not have to go through the 4 week curing that a handmade soap does. 

It's also often has artificial preservatives added to prolong shelf-life and to avoid Orange Spot - which may occur in soaps that have superfatting in their make up - it's simply the extra oils deteriorating as time passes - the soap itself is not harmful and is perfectly fine to use.  It's mainly unsightly, but given the choice of additional chemicals added to my soaps, I'll take the risk of a few orange spots, they certainly don't aggravate my allergies the way the preservatives have a tendency to. 

It's all 'swings and roundabouts' as my mother would have said.