Soap is a simple chemical reaction that has evolved into some complex forms.
Today thousands of intricately designed soaps ranging in size, scents and texture fill displays and shelves along body care aisles. At the turn of the century in 2000, the soap market reportedly generated an estimated 88 billion dollars, according to the Pan American Health Organization. These numbers reflect an estimated 30-percent rise in value since 1996.
How it began
Historic sources declare that the history of soap dates as far back as an estimated 4,000 years ago. According to accounts, Roman women were on the banks of the Tiber River pounding the dirt out of their clothes with rocks, as a sacrifice was taking place nearby. It is said that an animal was killed during this ritual and its fat dripped into the fire and down the bank into the river.
The hill the women were said to be on was named “sapo,” hence lending the substance its modern name. This foaming, sudsy substance was noticed by the women, who are rumored to have praised the goopy tar-like mess for its ability to remove dirt from their fabrics before being washed.
According to some reports, the Romans never used soap for their skin; but exclusively for clothing and laundry, as it was abrasive and could cause surface damage.
How it works
Soap works by altering the surface-tension of water. Generally water molecules are bonded together in the form of two hydrogen atoms surrounding an oxygen atom attached by an adhesive covalent bond. This makes water cohesive, and able to form a convex meniscus in a slightly overfilled glass. By itself, water is incapable of dissolving the oil and dirt that accumulates on the surface of skin.
By using the fat from animals, or fat obtained from plants, the constitution of soap is created by melting together lye, or caustic soda, with the right combination of animal or plant-derived fats. The Romans stumbled upon soap because the ashes they used during the sacrifice contained lye. When combined with the animal fat it produced a soapy reaction in the water.
Cleaning methods experienced an evolutionary milestone during the 1800s. Domestic methods of cleaning clothes and care for personal hygiene received new attention.
According to sources, washing clothes at least once during the week became the standard for many rural and urban families, designating Monday as ‘wash day.’
As the discovery of oil propelled many parts of the Western world into prosperity, it also encouraged the mechanical production of many developing consumer products.
For example, factory manufactured tubs began to replace ones made from old-fashioned wooden stave. Indoor drying racks and clothing pegs became a popular item supplied by hardware stores of the era.
“By the end of the century there were plenty of wrapped bars of commercial, branded laundry soap sold at moderate prices,” Old and Interesting explains. “To mix up lather, you could grate flakes off the bar soap, or even buy ready-made soap flakes in a box.”
“Soap powder had been known for a few decades, and from about 1880 it was quite widely available. Developments in science, industry and commerce had a significant impact on household chores,” the site concludes.