One of the oldest inventions, soaps have been around since 5000 years almost none of us use soaps today!
Soaps turn out to be one of the oldest inventions by man. In ancient Sumer, soaps were used in 2800 B.C.
It is almost certain that soaps were discovered by accident. Soaps are the salt of a fatty acid. When you take a fatty acid and add a base to it, it combines to create a salt. If you took any oil or fat and added a base to it and heated it, the reaction would produce a soap.
The first formula for making soap was found on an ancient Sumerian tablet dated to about 2500 B.C. They made soaps by heating a mixture of oil and adding wood ash to it.
For a long time, soaps were used to wash clothes, particularly wool and cotton. They were not used for personal hygiene. Even in the Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder describes the process of making soaps. It follows the same process as described by the 5000-year-old tablet.
Soaps used to be very alkaline and strong and hence they continued to be used mostly to wash clothing and other items.
In the first century AD, a small number of milder soaps started being made but these were mostly used by the rich in Rome. These soaps were made with animal fat and were used for personal hygiene. Historians think that though the product was available, it was available to a small number of people and only the very wealthy could afford it.
In India, botanical solutions were opted for, such as sandalwood which was powdered and applied on the body. Neem, tulsi and turmeric were used because they are known to be effective at killing germs. Shikakai (a variant of Acacia) was used to clean hair and body.
In China, it was known that ash could be used to remove grease. They used ash and naturally occurring plant fats to make their soaps.
It was in 700 AD that soaps, as we know them today, started to emerge in Arabia. Lightly perfumed and made out of plant fats, these solid soaps were used for a variety of personal hygiene purposes.
It was only in the 18th century that Europe started adopting soaps. The first manufacturing of soaps was started by Nicholas Leblanc and Michael Chevreul. They set up a soap factory and patented their method of making soaps. By 1811, Chevreul understood the chemistry involved and was able to explain it.
In the meantime, in London, Andrew Pears produced the first transparent soaps which were high in quality and made of pure glycerol.
By the early 1800s, there was a thriving fats business in America from Bacon and candles. In 1837, a Cincinnati candlemaker William Procter decided to diversify his business and pay attention to the process of making soaps. He enlisted a partner in his venture James Proctor. They created a new company called Proctor and Gamble (P&G). They launched their first soap branded Ivory.
By 1886, brothers James and William Lever started a store which amongst other things also sold soaps. They set up their own soap works in Warrington. Sourcing fat for the production of soaps was challenging and they decided to merge with a Dutch margarine producer Margarine Unie. The combined entity was renamed Unilever.
At the beginning of the 20th century, German engineers discovered a synthetic chemical surfactant better at cleaning or lifting dirt off. This class of chemical compounds came to be known as detergents.
With the discovery of detergents, soaps stopped being made altogether. Today all soaps, liquid or solid are made out of detergents synthetically.
Detergents froth very easily and they do not leave behind any gummy deposits.
If you still want to find the simple soaps of yore you can look for Aleppo Soap or the Castille Soap.