Soap...it is everywhere these days--from the dollar store to the high end boutiques. Handcrafted soap makers are featured on Etsy, shown on Pinterest, and lined up on Ebay. It comes wrapped in fancy paper, tucked in creative sleeved-paper, felted, and just piled up in basins and buckets. This is one of those products though where better quality ingredients do produce better quality soap. Some of the cheaper soaps are made from various animal fats not high quality olive oils like the bar shown here.
(I don't want to tell you how my psyche and spirit would react!)
Originally soap was made for washing textiles like wool or for medicinal purposes. In the ancient ruins of Babylon (now Iraq), remnants of soaps were excavated in a barrel that soap back to around 2800 B.C. It is believed that these large canisters were used in Babylonia for some kind of soap making process.
The first proof of soap's existence was a Mesopotamian clay tablet dating back to 2200 B.C. with a soap recipe inscribed on it. The soap making technique in the ancient times was mixing supplies taken from animals and from nature, such as animal fat and tree ash to form a cleansing agent.
Egyptians also made some type of soap. Manuscripts from approximately 1500 B.C found in Egypt describe a substance made by combining animal fats and vegetable oils to create a soap-like base and go on to explain another type of soap which is produced for the use in the production of wool.
The Romans use of soap is documented in Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis, and it seems that Mount Sapo was the namesake for their soap since sapo is Latin for soap. Around 200 A.D., the ancient Greeks combined lye and ashes to clean their pots and statues. The Gauls and Romans also used animal fat, beech tree ashes and goat's tallow to produce both hard and soft soap products.
As soap developed, it was created by soap maker guilds and was very expensive. According to my research, in France during the reign of Louis the 14th, bathing was considered an oddity not the norm. It is said that King Louis guillotined 3 soap makers for making soap that irritated his very sensitive royal skin. In desperation the 4 remaining soap makers in Paris got together and re-invented a method of pouring and curing the soap – taking a month to make a single bar. They saved their own necks, and the world got handmade soap (a.k.a. poured soap, cold process soap, farm soap, cured soap, etc).
Soap is mostly produced by a cold process where fatty acids and lye are mixed together. The fatty acid can range from beef tallow to hemp or olive oil. Just as in cooking, not all olive oils are equal so even if soap is touted as olive oil soap it may not be a better quality. Handmade soap is technically glycerin soap and it differs from industrial soap. In the handmade soap process method, an excess of fat is used to consume the alkali, and in that the glycerin is not harvest out. This supperfatted soap is more skin-friendly than industrial soap.
What often eludes today's consumers is the fact that handcrafted items are expensive, were always expensive, and should be expensive. Quality products are not cheap; however, in the 18th century a Frenchman (no, not Chinese!), Nicholas Le Blanc discovered a chemical process that allowed soda to be extracted from salt, and another Frenchman Eugene-Michel Chevreul designed a formula for adding fat to the recipe instead of guessing.
One of the first soap factories was built in Marseilles where the soil produced great olive trees and vegetable sodas. The Industrial Revolution changed the manufacturing process and now soap was readily available in a store or from a catalog.
After WWI and until 1930's, a method called batch kettle boiling was used for soap manufacture. Shortly thereafter, continuous process that decreased soap making production time to less than a day was introduced and refined by Procter & Gamble. Continuous process is still used by large commercial soap manufacturers.
We have no four figure soap bars, but do keep in mind a dollar bar of soap may be worth just that or less. Better quality soaps do not disappear, and I learned that if a soap base says it is 100% organic or all organic, that cannot be since soap requires some naturally occurring minerals - and by definition, minerals are NOT organic (they have never been alive). The oils can be organic though, but that could not be all organic. Soap will actually get better as it ages, but the scent may start to fade around a year.
"Your body is like a bar of soap. The more you use it, the more it wears down."
~ Richie Allen