Common scenes like men who don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom, empty soap dispensers in public toilets or leftover pills on the sink, taken to their ultimate outcomes seem like science fiction, when it comes to reality It has become a dystopia. Soap is no longer an accessory to become essential. The recommendation of the health authorities to wash their hands constantly with it to avoid the contagion has revealed to many its importance as a health weapon.
Its relevance has not always been the same. It took centuries since its invention, more than 4,500 years ago, to find the first evidence about its medicinal use. It was in Roman times when the uses of soap were detailed beyond dragging the scab on clothes and skin. Today, it is estimated that it has saved millions of lives. The composition of the product has also changed a lot since then. This is probably the most important daily human-made item story of all time.
Of animal fat and ashes, to clean things and cloths
An archaeological excavation in ancient Babylon found evidence that in 2,800 BC. C. soap was already manufactured. In clay jars, the inscriptions describe the mixture of fats boiled with ashes and mixed with water. In the ashes of the wood are the alkalis (caustic soda and potash), substances that dissolve in water and react in contact with fats, activating the process known as saponification. The first known recipe is made up of a quarter of fat and six quarters of potash. Thus, a mixture is produced with chains of compounds that include hydrophilic (alkalis attract water) and hydrophobic (sebum) properties, an indispensable discovery for the textile industry. Why?
At that time, according to a cuneiform tablet found in the city of Girsu, Iran, dated to 2,500 BC. C., soap was used by weavers to remove lanolin, a wax produced by the fats of some mammals, from wool. In this way, they could dye it more easily. The use of water did not manage to drag this wax, because just as the oil and the liquid element are separated in a glass, lanoline avoids getting together with the water. The soap chains, however, trap them inside and can be removed later. They also cleaned cotton with this substance, before turning both fabrics into garments.
At that time there is still no evidence of its use for body cleansing. Yes of its importance as merchandise. According to the book The Age of Agade: Inventing Empire in Ancient Mesopotamia, the archives of the governor of the time of the Akkadian empire (between 2,334 and 2,154 BC). ) prove that even then the populations traded with soap, as well as with the alkalis used for its formulation.
Was it invented by a slave woman?
In the book Who Ate the First Oyster?, writer and journalist Cody Cassidy collects the stories, imagined or not, of the first people to discover different articles. In one of his chapters he theorizes with whom he could discover this formula. And it does so based on historical evidence.
Taking the mentioned Girsu table, Cassidy takes us back to the Sumerian era. He even denominated his invented character: his name is Nini, in honor of the goddess of medicine Ninisina. He decides that she is a woman because soap is mainly used to wash fabrics. The burgeoning Sumerian textile sector (it is estimated that in three months and more than 200,000 sheep were sheared in the city of Girsu alone) was dominated by women anthropologist Joy McCorriston. The industry, also, depended on slaves, debtors and forced workers to cut, weave, dye and produce the pieces.
Therefore, the one who discovered the soap could be a low-class woman. And he did it when he realized that the mixtures of ash and water, when joined to the fats of the wool, cleaned better than other objects. Everything, of course, is based on speculation. Of course, with a whole scientific bibliography behind. With all this information, it is also possible that they were its main producers.
From the animal to the vegetable and its first bodily uses
In addition to the remains that testify to the creation of soap in Mesopotamia, there is also evidence of other later populations that followed this recipe. According to the Roman historian Pliny the Elder in his Historia Naturalis, the first work where the word soap appears, the Celts used goat fat and birch ash. The Gauls, the tallow of the boar and the residues of the combustion of the beech. Of the first ones, by the way, it receives its name, because as Alexander Escarpa indicates in his book Roman Technology (Akal), the Romans adopted Celtic Saipo as a toad, and from there it went on to the other languages.
Before Westerners used the product, evidence shows that the Phoenicians already used vegetable fat instead of animal fat. His favorite: the olive oil one. Its formulation is the same as that of the Mesopotamians: it included alkalis and water. This seems to be the origin of the famous Aleppo soap, whose recipe remains intact to this day and which has suffered a setback due to the civil war in Syria. Although they did not create it, they did resume this ancestral manufacture around the 10th century BC. C. and they added bay leaves to improve its aroma, in addition to its format in solid square bars. The Phoenicians, great merchants, extended it through their Mediterranean settlements.
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In Egypt, the recipe varied. According to Ana Maria Utrera’s Hygiene and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt essay , available online, “the Egyptians used a solid paste, called swabw, wab factitive (clean, pure), which contained natron and an ash-based paste and clay, which caused the formation of foam. The Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest known medical treatises (dates from 1,500 BC), also provides its uses. It was considered an essential cosmetic for the upper classes, the only ones with access to this luxury item. They used it for cleansing and were prescribed by doctors for skin care, although its specific benefits were not specified.
Evidence of its medicinal uses
According to Roman legend, soap making started by chance 3,000 years ago on Mount Toad, near Rome. The animals that the faithful gave as offerings to the gods were burned on the hill, and their fats mixed with the ashes of the fires on the altar. This union trickled down the clay slopes. The women who came to the temple realized that the amalgam formed helped them to leave their clothes cleaner.
Archeology denies this fantastic story, and dates its discovery a couple of millennia earlier. However, it does seem that they were the first to master their health utilities. The doctor Galen, in the 2nd century AD. C, Semplicibus medicaminibus details the use of soaps for personal hygiene. It recommends its use as a detergent as well as a medicine, as it expels impurities from the body and clothing, and because it has an emollient effect, that is, it softens and relaxes hardness, tumors and inflammations. It was during these years that it became popular in the well-known Roman baths and doctors’ offices.
Today, an ally against the pandemic
Many were the peoples who appreciated the importance of soap throughout history, most of them without recognition. How the Being collected in Cuenca in space Thus the documents say,an army commander in a testimony from 1818 was already asking for this product.
The Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis said the same thing, who linked the lack of hygiene in the hands of doctors and students with the death of women after childbirth. These went from practicing with corpses in their lessons to intervening when the patients gave birth, without first washing. However, it was ignored by the scientific community.
Louis Pasteur had to arrive to be given the importance of hand washing and, therefore, soap. He discovered that deadly microbes were transmitted in childbirth with the contact of the hands and that by washing them they were eliminated.
With a history as long as that of soap, it is impossible to determine the number of lives that it has been able to save in all these centuries, even if unconsciously. The most conservative estimates put it at hundreds of millions. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the recommendation of authorities such as the WHO have given it a privileged place in the shopping cart. The Marseillaise factory Savonnerie de la Licorne, which during the Second World War was requisitioned, has increased the sales of its store by 30%, and orders to its factory have multiplied by four, according to its owner and heir to his father and his grandfather Serge Bruna.
The sale of hand soaps in the week before the time of confinement increased by 250% compared to the previous week, and has maintained a high trend throughout the period.
It has had to survive millenary, civilizations and even oblivion, but soap has endured to this day and, thanks to science, it has become a silent ally of our health. Until now. We will never look at that waning soap bar again.