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The Historic Development of Soap and Detergent

Most of us use soap and detergent almost every day of our lives. They help us remove dirt and grime from ourselves, our clothing, and our dishes. That said, we often don’t give the origin of this useful stuff much thought.

Today, we hope to change that. We’re going to review the historic development of soap and detergent

Soap’s Invention

As with many early inventions, the origin of soap is not entirely clear. In fact, really we’ll be discussing the origins of soap since multiple peoples came up with the same idea more or less independently.

The earliest knowledge we have of people using something we might call soap comes from Babylonian clay containers dating all the way back to 2800 BCE.

This soap, as holds true for many ancient peoples, was made by combining animal fats with wood ash and water. In fact, many soaps are still made basically this same way even today.

However, noteworthy is also the soaps we know at least some Native Americans used, since they and the Babylonians were completely isolated from each other.

While a great deal of Native American history is lost, we do know some tribes used soaps and detergents made from parts of soaptree, also called soaptree yucca.

It’s likely many peoples came up with soap or the equivalent independently but it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly who or when unless we find evidence of its use and can prove it wasn’t brought over from a different culture first.

Soap and the Ancient World

While we tend to think of the ancient world as a dirty place, the truth is that there aren’t many cultures who liked wallowing in filth. Even if they didn’t understand germ theory, people have never really liked feeling dirty.

While hygiene practices have waxed and waned over the centuries and among various cultures, soap was a staple more or less since its invention. It isn’t very hard to make and is much better for cleaning than only using water.

Of course, it wasn’t always made the same way (and much of the world wouldn’t have access to any options using American plants for a very long time).

The Egyptians used something we might call soap made from animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts and also bathed regularly. The Romans made soap from animal fat and ashes, and are the culture we get its modern name from.

What About Medieval Europe?

There’s something of a myth that after Rome fell, medieval Europe descended into an age of dirt and grime. There’s some truth to this but many people’s views on their hygiene practices are a bit off-base.

Medieval Europeans bathed less than many other cultures of the past and even those of the time. However, they also didn’t like being visibly dirty or eating food with dirty hands.

These people would, if they could get it, use soap made from soda, lye, caustic soda, or potash (a common, potassium-rich salt).

This all said, for much of the Early Medieval Period and beyond, even fully bathing once a week in Europe was seen as a lot and even unhealthy. However, the Norse, Japanese, and more were bathing more regularly around that same time.

A Quick Look at Cleaning Clothes

For the most part, we’ve focused on soaps meant for the body. What about detergents intended for clothing? The truth is it’s a similar story to soap.

While many cultures used water, brushes, and even mallets to clean clothes, it was the Romans who turned cleaning clothes into something of an industry.

They used a cleaning mixture made of whitewash, lye, urine, and water to clean clothes. Then they’d wash it with clean water in a cleaning cycle not unlike what a washing machine helps us do now (although most of us don’t use detergents with urine as an ingredient).

Many other cultures would use more or less the same kind of soap one would use on their bodies to clean clothes. The combination of animal fat and wood ash, while simple by modern standards, can do the job for most clothes given time and effort.

Time Progresses

As time went on, using soap and similar detergents became more the norm. More and more, people began to bathe themselves and clean their clothes more thoroughly throughout the world.

Things moved slow but, by the 12th century, the English and many others in Europe were making soap regularly. By 1600, commercial soap was becoming more common although most homes still would make their own.

By the 17th century, Europe was seeing something of a hygiene boom. Regular cleaning and bathing became fashionable and, with that, there was a bigger demand for soap.

Nicholas Leblanc Makes a Cleaner World

The world started seeing big changes at a faster rate once the time period we call the Age of Enlightenment began around 1715.

While things were not perfect, more and more people valued science and reason at this time. There were huge changes in almost every industry, which brings us to the chemist (and surgeon) Nicholas Leblanc.

To make a long, fascinating story short, Leblanc invented a way to make soda ash from common salt right at the tail end of the Enlightenment era, in 1789.

In short, this made soap and detergents far easier and cheaper to produce than they ever were before. (It also helped in a host of other ways, but our focus today is on soap and detergents.)

The Invention (or at Least Patenting) of Liquid Soap

Once again, history gets a bit murky. At some point, someone (or possibly many someones) invented liquid soap. However, it isn’t totally clear who came up with soap of this kind.

What we do know is that on August 22, 1865, a man named William Sheppard patented improved liquid soap. This is where we might suggest soap was becoming “modern” and looking more and more like we recognize it today.

Of course, he wasn’t the last person to innovate on soap. As soap became easier to produce and sell in mass quantities, a number of patents for bar and liquid soap would continue to emerge.

Moreover, germ theory would become more and more accepted around this same. We started to understand how people got sick and why washing up was so important to staying healthy.

The Modern(ish) Laundry Detergent

Laundry detergent that was distinct from soap and approaching what we now use would emerge around this same time. While it’s again hard to say who invented “laundry detergent,” there are a few important names we can point to.

The German Otto Rohm started using cleaning enzymes in the washing detergents his company sold by 1914. This was a big revolution in detergent and he saw huge success in Germany because of it.

In the 1930s, Proctor and Gamble (P&G) made big strides in detergent thanks to the work of American engineer Robert Duncan and some research he performed in Germany.

He discovered surfactants, which are a huge help in pulling oil and grease off clothing. Soon after, P&G produced what seems to be the very first synthetic detergent. It was gentle and couldn’t handle all jobs, but it was a big step for the industry.

The Beginning of the Present

At this point, records become more clear and patents quite thorough. By the 30s or 40s, the developed world had access to soaps and detergents you would easily recognize as such.

Dozens and dozens of cleaning products were now being produced. In 1949, Joy dish soap was marketed as the first liquid soap aimed at dishes, seeing huge success.

From there, soaps only became more effective and more diverse. Increasingly, soaps and detergents were engineered for more specific purposes.

Packaging changed too. At first, glass bottles were the norm. Then aluminum. In the 60s, Joy became the first dish detergent to be packaged in a plastic bottle with the industry following suit.

As the economy became more global and engineers continued their work, scented soaps and detergents have become more common too. Whereas scented cleaning solutions would once have been luxuries, they’re now common in almost every home.

Soap and Detergent March Forward

That covers the basic history of soap and detergents but it won’t be the end. Engineers are always working to innovate and invent. In the future, we will likely see soaps that are cheaper, more effective, and better for the environment!

If you found this article informative, we hope you’ll explore our site for more. We have articles on a ton of topics and are sure to have something you’d like!

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