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Soap Has Always Been With Us, and Longer Still
(now available to all readers)
This essay was first released to paid subscribers only and is now available to everyone. It is also one of the many essays included in my essay collection, The Secret of Crossings.
We moderns have a bizarre tendency to think of the past as a place of tragedy, misery, darkness, and ignorance. Our ancestors were all stupid, living in filth, squalor, and poverty, toiling to eke out a living from the soil. I say “bizarre” because this framing is a kind of abnormality in cultural cosmologies.
We are one of the very few civilizations that look at the past this way, and the only one to have such a firm belief in time as linear progression. Which may sound strange. It’s difficult to imagine another way of understanding time, and some of this difficulty derives from our language itself, or rather from the linguistic limits built into our language.
Consider what it might be like to speak a language that has no past tense, no way of differentiating between something that happened yesterday and something that happened a century ago. Imagine how you might tell a story about your child, how everything might seem to bleed into the present.
Many languages have no past tense. They have ways of speaking about events which have happened, but not of describing the past as something that no longer exists. Linguistically, the past functions like a place that you’re not currently in, or a direction in which you are looking, rather than a time period that has passed.
While this might feel limiting, it’s only because our own linguistic framework is also limited. When you are accustomed to thinking of time as something that travels past you, or as a road you are on that only goes in one direction, it’s very difficult to conceive of a different way of perceiving time. Trapped in our linguistic prisons, we can only perceive time as a string of discrete moments which occur, once, and then end, rather than as an entire forest stretching out in all directions from where we stand.
But don’t despair. There’s a very simple way to escape this prison, using something that has always been with us, and longer still: Soap.
Think of the past. Imagine it the way our modern delusions tell us to imagine it. Imagine what life was like a thousand years ago, or two thousand. Imagine what life was like without the ability to wash yourself or your clothes. Imagine how bad people must have smelled, how dirty everything was, how wretched everything looked, and how grimy your skin would have felt without that artifact of modern, daily life, soap.
And now realize that all your imaginings are completely wrong.
Soap has always been with us. Soap has been around as long as we have been around, and even longer. Soap isn’t a new thing. Soap isn’t a thing that humans invented. Soap is the offspring of fire, flesh, and water, born in the ashes of forest and cooking fires and funeral pyres.
The oldest record of soap is from Babylon, some 4800 years ago as we moderns tell time. A clay tablet bears the magic formula for the creation of a specific kind of soap, one used to clean wool so that the dye will take better. That tablet is the oldest record we have, which only means it was probably one of the first times someone decided that a specific recipe for soap needed to be chiseled into permanence.
Combine wood ash with fat and water, that tablet directs the reader. This is how soap is born, not “created” or “invented” but arising out of something else.
Cook a piece of meat over a wood fire, let the rain fall on those ashes afterward, and you have soap in its rawest form. Not the soap you might use in your shower, of course, which—especially if it’s a “shower gel” or “liquid soap”—is probably actually a synthetic detergent.
Those wet, greasy, cook-fire ashes will lift greases and oils from other things. That’s what soap is and what soap does. In other words, every time a human cooks meat over a wood fire, and water touches those ashes, there is soap. Soap, then, is “as old as” cooking, and older still.
Rain falling upon the remains of a dead animal burnt by a forest fire births soap, too.
We moderns want to know when soap was first “invented.” We want to name the moment in human history before which there was no soap, and after which there was soap.
Soap is older than we are, though, which means we didn’t make soap. We only learned its uses. We might speak of soap the way alchemists speak of things, without trapping them in the linguistic prison of linear time. Alchemists speak of “salts,” the remains of a thing after fire and water have had their way with it. Salt is what remains of the sea once the water has gone, burned away by the heat of the sun.
A “salt” is what remains of wood once fire has burned it to ash, water has dissolved and purified that ash, and fire has dried away the water. The resulting salt is called potash or lye. Potash is actually two words together—“pot” and “ash”—because it is the substance remaining after ashes are leeched in water and then boiled in iron pots. Potash is the root of our word “potassium,” coined in the 1800s to describe a substance that humans had always known. The chemists say that potash is an alkali, which is just to say the same thing twice: “Alkali” is the Arabic word (al-qaliy) that means “ash.”
The other word for this alchemical salt—lye—is from an ancient Germanic word that meant “to wash.” It has the same root as the English words “lather,” “launder,” and “latrine,” and referred first to a kind of water itself (water mixed with wood ash for cleaning) rather than to the salt remaining once the water evaporated.
You can bathe in water filled with wood ash and come out feeling less oily, because lye reacts with oils in an alchemical process called “saponification.” Soap is the transmutation of lye and oil into a substance that clings to and separates other oils and fats from each other.
That’s how soap cleans, whether in its cruder form—as wet ashes and grease—or as the prettier and better-smelling soaps we generally think of. In water, the oils of soap bind to the oils you wish to remove, and more water carries it all away from the skin.
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We are using oil to clean away oil. Which may explain why both the Chinese and the Romans tended to use only oil, or sometimes oil mixed with wood ashes, to clean themselves after bathing in water. In Rome, this involved the use of a strigil, a curved piece of metal (often copper or brass) used to scrape the oil off the skin after first covering yourself in it. In China, unguents made with pig pancreas (or cured fish), fat, and wood ash were applied and then scraped off.
There is a popular falsehood that our word “soap” comes from a story about the mythic Roman Mount Sapo. The story goes that clothing rinsed in the streams flowing from that mountain always came out particularly clean, because burnt offerings were performed at its summit. Supposedly, soap from ritual slaughter flowed into the streams, and humans discovered it. There was no Mount Sapo, however, and the story is not a Roman myth but a much later creation. But our word “soap” does come from the Romans, who got it from the Germans. We know this from Pliny the Elder, who wrote that both the Celtic Gauls and the Germans used it:
There is also soap (sapo), an invention of the Gauls for making their hair shiny. It is made from tallow and ashes, the best from beechwood ash and goat fat, and exists in two forms, solid and liquid; among the Germans both are used more by men than by women.
Like most Roman and Greek historians, Pliny never visited or even met most of the people he wrote about, rewriting other people’s accounts instead. Both Gauls and Germans often had fair or even red hair, and thus the “shine” of their hair might just have referred to its color, although their hair may also have been clean because they were using soap to wash it. Regardless, at the same time that the citizens of an empire were using oil to clean themselves, the supposedly backwards, ignorant, and superstitious indigenous people (the Gauls and the Germans) were lathering themselves up with soap.
The first record of soap is from Babylon, a specific kind of soap for a specific use. It’s for cleaning wool, which cannot be dyed until the oils are removed. Later records, from Egypt for example, also describe how to make specific soaps for specific uses.
Folk traditions say that soap is much older, especially those in Africa and the Middle East.
Alata samina, or ose dudu, (“African black soap”) is said to be thousands of years old. Crafted primarily by Yoruba women, it is a soap made of plant ash, water, and shea or other “butter” oils. In what is now Syria there is صابون_حلبي, also known as ghar soap, laurel soap, or more famously “Aleppo Soap.” As with African black soap, its origin story is older than the Western mindset can conceive: Locals say it is at least 4000 years old, almost as old as the Babylonian recipe for wool-cleansing soap.
Whether or not you believe its origin story, Aleppo soap has a special history. It was the recipe for Aleppo soap that formed the basis of the first two mass-manufactured soaps in Europe: Castile soap and Marseille soap. Soap was in use throughout Europe long before Spanish artisans began making Castile soap and, later, French merchants began producing savon de Marseille, but it was the Arabs who first learned how to make soap in large amounts.
Aleppo soap uses laurel oil along with olive oil; Marseille and Castile soap do not use laurel. All three combine the ashes of halophytes—grasses and other plants that thrive along the seacoast—along with boiling water (seawater in traditional Marseille and Castile soap), then allow the soap to harden. It takes a month for Marseille and Castile soaps to be ready to use, while Aleppo soap is aged for at least six months—and sometimes up to three years—in order to be considered authentic.
Aleppo soap—along with its cousin, Nabulsi soap—was the original mass-produced soap, and it became quite popular during and after the crusades. Crusading soldiers, as well as merchants and priests, brought back sacksful of the soap to trade (and perhaps also as payment). Europe already had soap—the Celts and Germans had been making it before the Roman Empire arose—but the Arabic soap was superior in quality, harder, and therefore much longer lasting. Also, because it was made with plant oils rather than animal fat, it felt better on the skin: soaps made from animal fats are stronger and therefore more drying.
Spanish and French merchants eventually copied Aleppo soap on a very large scale, engaging in what may have been the first industrialized production scheme in Europe. Because of their military dominance, Spanish merchants spread Castile soap to England, undercutting folk soap-making there.
It was during this period, just before the birth of capitalism and industrialization, that a strange thing happened in Europe—people stopped cleaning themselves regularly. There are several reasons for this. First, Castile soap became associated with Catholicism, and Protestant leaders in England preached against using soap or even bathing nude at all. Our idea of “dirty,” foul-smelling peasants comes from this period in England, when bathing was seen as a sign of idolatry and lewd behavior, rather than simple hygiene. The British Crown fed into this moral reversal by heavily taxing soap, raising the prices so high that even the rich didn’t think it worth the price.
In France, now renowned for its Marseille soap, people also stopped bathing regularly. This wasn’t due to moral panic, but rather “enlightenment” and “science.” Doctors in the early days of the Age of Reason thought that bathing in hot water caused disease, which they concluded must enter the body through open pores. Soap was believed to open pores and clear the skin of its “protection” against foul airs. Thus, beginning with the aristocracy, the French stopped bathing regularly or using soap. Louis XIV was said to have only taken two or three baths in his lifetime and did not even like to be washed with a cloth. Despite the relentless perfumes filling the palace of Versailles to cover the poor hygiene of the entire court, the king’s body odor was so bad that an Austrian official complained he smelled like a wild boar. Even today you’ll find that many people in France bathe or shower quite rarely, as I found while living there.
This is why moderns have a belief that soap, personal hygiene, and regular bathing are new things, and that our ancestors were dirty and smelled bad. The story goes that people had to be convinced to use soap, that soap is a miraculous invention wrought by capitalism.
This falsehood is due to the commercialization of soap in the United States, beginning with Proctor & Gamble’s chemical soap, Ivory, in 1879. Early advertising hints at the reality of the situation. Ivory was sold as an improvement on both home-made soaps as well as the Castile soap already widely available. Proctor & Gamble claimed that Ivory was a “purer” soap, despite their addition of extraneous chemicals like magnesium sulfate.
Most of the soaps in use now are not actually soaps at all, but detergents. Both function in similar ways, but detergents are created from industrial chemicals rather than natural ingredients. Detergents arose during the early 20th century due to shortages of oil and tallow, which were diverted for war efforts. Residues from coal and, later, from petroleum were the primary sources for these detergents, and now the list of chemicals used to create them is very, very long. Like many of the “new” inventions of our supposedly modern, enlightened age, detergents are more destructive and “dirtier” than their predecessors: The chemicals in most detergents do not break down over time, polluting water and damaging other parts of nature.
It’s fair to say that, despite our belief that modern people are cleaner and more hygienic than our ancestors, our civilization is actually dirtier.
Soap is not the only way to get clean, of course. I’ve already mentioned the ancient practice of using oils. The Chinese also used fragrant wood chips, rubbing them against the skin to pick up dirt and oils. In many other cultures, especially those indigenous to the Americas, plants and leaves were used for the same purpose, after bathing in water.
In many places, water itself was enough to clean away any grime, dirt, and oil. Thermal and countless other springs are still used for bathing, as they were for thousands and thousands of years. In many cases, the water from these springs is alkaline and filled with minerals such as natron (sodium bicarbonate) or washing soda (sodium carbonate), both of which clean the skin and clothing quite well. And the ocean is full of one of the most basic cleaning elements of all: Salt. A swim in the sea will clean away grime as well as bacteria, and you don’t even need to scrub at all.
Many plants themselves produce a kind of soap called “saponins” which has been used by countless cultures. The two best-known such plants were named for this quality: soapwort and soap nut. Horse chestnuts, ivy, clematis, buffalo berry, bracken fern, baby’s breath, beet leaves, yucca, fenugreek, and even most beans are high in saponins and can be boiled down to create a liquid soap.
Another powerful cleaning liquid, perhaps surprisingly, is urine. Unless the person producing it is ill, urine is a sterile liquid that can be—and often was—used to clean wounds. More common, however, was the use of urine to clean particularly deep stains out of clothing, because it is high in ammonia (as such, it’s also been used to whiten teeth). Urine is also the oldest recorded “mordant” used in fabric dying. After soaps were used to clear the oils from wool and linen, the cloth was soaked in urine and plant or mineral dyes. The urine held the dyes in the cloth.
It may not be necessary to clean yourself regularly, depending on what you eat. Body odor is the result of the bacterial digestion of elements in food coming out in sweat. The more sugars and processed foods a person eats, the stronger their smell will be. Some foods, most notably alliums (onions, garlic), some brassicas (broccoli, cabbage), eggs, and many spices (turmeric, cumin, capsicum) contain sulphur, which is released during bacterial digestion. Seafood can cause a person to smell fishy, but the largest natural culprits of body odor are milk and cheese, which create a very sour smell on the skin after digestion. Diets containing these foods will cause a person to “smell dirty” more often than diets without them.
Of course, if everyone is eating the same things and smelling the same way, no one will notice unless they come from somewhere else. Thus, all the accounts by early merchants and travelers referring to the odor of the people they visited. It may be apocryphal, but it is said that the Chinese who encountered Marco Polo complained that he smelled of rotten milk, and accounts from colonial ventures report that the natives often complained of their smell. This is why immigrant neighborhoods smell different—the people there are eating different foods. Don’t worry though: You smell as strange to them as they do to you.
This is to say that “clean” is a relative concept, and hygiene is hardly a new idea. Soap has been around longer than humans. So, too, have many of the plants that will clean grime and oil from skin, clothes, and tools. The sea and cleansing springs have likewise been here much longer than we have.
We moderns did not come up with soap. We’re actually rather late to the party. Soap is timeless, something that reminds us that time is never linear, never a march from “primitive” to “progress.” Soap has always been with us, and longer still.
You may also really enjoy my essay collection, The Secret of Crossings.