The History of Soap Making and How Far We've Come

by Rebecca Rhinehart

Today you can go to any grocery store and be faced with an isle of nothing but bottles of body wash and bars of soap in every scent and color combination possible. But owning a bar of soap in America was at one time considered a luxury. 

Quick History of Soap Making in America

The only ingredients needed were fat scraps from meat and ashes collected from multiple fires. Easy enough? However, this was not exactly a quick or pleasant experience to render fat under high heat and combine with pot ash. That only resulted in a jelly substance used to strip and wash clothes. To make a solid bar salt was added, but that was a very expensive commodity and not worth using in soap. 

After realizing during the Civil War that personal hygiene was saving lives, the regular use of soap became widespread. This opened doors for commercial soap making and further evolution of soap science. By the 1870's the Proctor & Gamble were scaling up soap production to meet the demand. Not even 50 years later the company expanded to making soap in broilers three stories tall, each large enough to make enough soap to fill seven boxcars. 

There is much more to say about the industrialization of soap making and the bounds in chemical engineering that allowed soap and detergent production to thrive. 

Where are we today?

When shopping for a body soap or shampoo today you are paralyzed by the sheer volume of options available. Now look at the back label of those products, lines of ingredient information that are hard to process and understand their source. A common ingredient you will find in your shampoo, body wash and even laundry soap is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate or SLS.  This is an extremely common surfactant found in most products that clean and produce bubbles. 

Your skin functions as a a barrier and reacts when in contact with chemicals that disrupt natural balance. By reducing the amount of products whose function is to strip moisture and make bubbles.

Today it is common to find more artisan soaps made by small businesses. We have access to so many fragrances, colors and other fun additives that soap making is now an art. 


Further reading...

Into a Second Century with Procter and Gamble; Procter & Gamble: Cincinnati, OH, 1944

Lief, Alfred It Floats: The Story of Procter and Gamble; Reinhart & Co., Inc.: New York, NY, 1958

Chemists Clean Up: A History and Exploration of the Craft of Soapmaking W How Soap Came to Be Common in America by Kimberly L. Kostka and David D. McKay