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Who Commercialized Soap?

posted on: Dec 17, 2020

“What is elegance? Soap and water!” Cecil Beaton

By: Ahmed Abu Sultan/Arab America Contributing Writer    Soap is a salt of a fatty acid used in a variety of cleansing and lubricating products. Soapy surfactants are used for washing, bathing, and housekeeping. The earliest recorded evidence of the production of soap-like materials dates back to around 2800 BC in ancient Babylon. A formula for soap consisting of water, alkali, and cassia oil was written on a Babylonian clay tablet around 2200 BC. However, Islam was a culture that placed a significant level of importance on hygiene. That is when Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi discovered the recipe for hard toilet soap with a pleasant smell. It was produced in the Middle East during the Islamic Golden Age when soap-making became an established industry. Afterward, every Islamic home was expected to have soap.


History acknowledges the earliest use for soap was discovered in Babylon. The Ebers papyrus indicates the ancient Egyptians bathed regularly and combined animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to create a soap-like substance. Egyptian documents mention a similar substance was used in the preparation of wool for weaving. In ancient Palestine, the ashes from barilla plants, such as species of Salsola, saltwort, and Anabasis, were used in soap production, known as potash. Soap made from potash is alkaline. If animal lard were used, it was heated and kept lukewarm. Lard, collected from suet, needed to be rendered and strained before being used with ashes. Traditionally, olive oil was used instead of animal lard throughout the Levant, which was boiled in a copper cauldron for several days. As the boiling progresses, alkali ashes and smaller quantities of quicklime were added, and constantly stirred. In the case of lard, it required constant stirring while kept lukewarm until it began to trace. Once it began to thicken, the brew was poured into a mold and left to cool and harden for 2 weeks. After hardening, it was cut into smaller cakes. Aromatic herbs were often added to the rendered soap to impart their fragrance, such as yarrow leaves, lavender, and germander. The ancient method here described is still in use in the production of Nabulsi soap.

The word sapo is Latin for soap. It first appears in Pliny the Elder’s account, Historia Naturalis, which discusses the manufacture of soap from tallow and ashes, but the only use he mentions for it is as a pomade for hair; he mentions rather disapprovingly that the men of the Gauls and Germans were more likely to use it than their female counterparts. The Romans avoided washing with harsh soaps before encountering the milder soaps used by the Gauls around 58 BC. In contrast, a detergent similar to soap was manufactured in ancient China from the seeds of Gleditsia Sinensis. Another traditional detergent is a mixture of pig pancreas and plant ash called zhuyizi. True soap, made of animal fat, did not appear in China until the modern era. Soap-like detergents were not as popular as ointments and creams.

“The doctor’s aim is to do good, even to our enemies, so much more to our friends, and my profession forbids us to do harm to our kindred, as it is instituted for the benefit and welfare of the human race, and God imposed on physicians the oath not to compose mortiferous remedies.” Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi

Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi

Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī was a polymath, physician, alchemist, philosopher, and important figure in the history of medicine. He also wrote on logic, astronomy, and grammar. A comprehensive thinker, Razi made fundamental and enduring contributions to various fields, which he recorded in over 200 manuscripts, and is particularly remembered for numerous advances in medicine through his observations and discoveries. An early proponent of experimental medicine, he became a successful doctor and served as chief physician of Baghdad and Ray hospitals. As a teacher of medicine, he attracted students of all backgrounds and interests and was said to be compassionate and devoted to the service of his patients, whether rich or poor.

Razi contributed in many ways to the early practice of pharmacy by compiling texts, in which he introduces the use of “mercurial ointments” and his development of apparatus such as mortars, flasks, spatulas, and vials, which were used in pharmacies until the early twentieth century. On a professional level, Razi introduced many practical, progressive, medical, and psychological ideas. He attacked charlatans and fake doctors who roamed the cities and countryside selling their nostrums. At the same time, he warned that even highly educated doctors did not have the answers to all medical problems and could not cure all sicknesses or heal every disease, which was humanly speaking impossible. To become more useful in their services and truer to their calling, Razi advised practitioners to keep up with advanced knowledge by continually studying medical books and exposing themselves to new information. He made a distinction between curable and incurable diseases. Overall, his many achievements include the industrialization of Soap production due to its value to protect human health.

“Truth is worse than soap in the eyes.” Suzanne Palmieri

Modern Day

Nowadays, soap is everywhere. It is in every single household, office, or public. Now more than ever soap is becoming an industrial product rather than commercial due to the massive demand coinciding with the spread of the infamous coronavirus. The evolution of soap over the generation did not change its basic use. Soap has always served the purpose of preventing disease and unwanted odors. It is unfortunate that in our time and age many people are still reluctant to maintain a resemblance to civilized people. This negligence saw the massive spread of the virus all across the United States, and many other countries and States. Nonetheless, to provide convenience, liquid soap was invented in the name of spreading the habit of using soap more frequently.

Liquid soap was not invented until the nineteenth century; in 1865, William Shepphard patented a liquid version. In 1898, B.J. Johnson developed a soap derived from palm and olive oils; his company, the B.J. Johnson Soap Company, introduced “Palmolive” brand soap that same year. In the early 1900s, other companies began to develop their liquid soaps. Such products as Pine-Sol and Tide appeared on the market, making the process of cleaning things other than skin, such as clothing, floors, and bathrooms, much easier. Liquid soap also works better for more traditional or non-machine washing methods, such as using a washboard.

It is truly a blessing to know the value of soap, especially nowadays. It is vital to continue to use it whether there was a pandemic or not. The collective health and hygiene of a culture depend on the incentivizing of using soap-like products. After all, a penny for preservation is better than a pound of medicine.

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