A Clean Start: How Old Is Soap?

Just how long has the human race been able to scrub up?
A Clean Start: How Old Is Soap?

One thing that’s vastly undermentioned when we look to the past is just how horrific everybody smelled. Just once, Id like to see someone step out of a time machine in a movie and immediately retch from the fumes of streetside sewage and overwhelming body odor. 

Maybe its because were so used to Hollywood period pieces with immaculately groomed people of the past that we dont fully appreciate the poor hygiene back then. After all, nobody wants to watch the version of King Arthur where everyones teeth are barely usable corn kernels and theyre smeared with horseshit. Even weirder, the people that were the cleanest, like the Vikings, were the ones usually portrayed as filthy barbarians.

Thinking about this, though, put two questions in my brain. First, when exactly was some form of soap originally invented, and by who? Second, if it was as far back as I assumed, were there a bunch of otherwise forward-thinking organizations that just didnt think it was worth the time? They were all too busy playing hoop and stick and working at the docks to scrub up when they got home?

The first record of soap, according to Judith Ridner, professor of history at Mississippi State University, comes from ancient Mesopotamia. The basic ingredients werent far off from the modern recipe that most people know from Fight Club, either. Rendered animal fat, water and lye or a lye equivalent alkaline substance. This was way back further than I expected, in the third millennium BCE, which should have been more than enough time for people to spend less of their lives smelling like the wrong end of a horse. 

But these first soaps, though they were used for cleaning, werent used on human bodies. They were instead used to clean fibers before weaving.

Bernard Gagnon

Aleppo soap, made from olive oil, lye and laurel oil, has been rumored to be the soap used by Cleopatra herself.

In fact, it would take the absolutely gobsmacking span of another thousand years before people thought of using the soap that they cleaned their tools, clothes and other everyday items with on their actual skin. A cuneiform tablet found in what was then the Hittite city of Boghazkoi, and is now the Turkish city of Bogazkoy, has the first mention of people using soap to clean their skin. That didnt, however, mean everybody stuck with soap from there on out. Greeks and Romans didnt use soap to clean themselves, simply rinsing off in water baths and scraping stubborn scum off with scrapers called strigils, then — and I promise this isnt a stereotypical joke — rubbing themselves down with scented olive oil.

There were also periods, like in the 16th to 18th century, when Europeans didnt wash themselves because they were afraid it would make them sick. They didnt have the most stellar understanding of bacteria, and they thought disease could be transmitted through water. 

As for the Americas, when did actually using soap to, you know, clean yourself catch on? It was, weirdly, a result of the Civil War. Apparently, somebody in the Union had figured out the sanitary benefits, and pushed personal hygiene as part of the war effort. Once people started regularly cleaning themselves, they discovered what air that wasnt suffused with sweat and shit smelled like and decided, hey, lets stick with this. Soap for personal cleaning became a desirable item, and companies that are still around today like Ivory and Palmolive rose to fill the need.

Heres one last fun fact: Even right now, you probably dont use nearly as much soap as you think you do. A huge amount of modern “soaps” arent soap at all. They're technically detergents. I guess “body detergent” is just a little too sci-fi to sell well.

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