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The History of Soap

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Bathing is a relatively new experience as we have become accustomed to finding natural body odours objectionable.

Bathing is a relatively new experience as we have become accustomed to finding natural body odours objectionable.

Stinking Times

There’s evidence the ancient Babylonians were making soap from fats boiled with ashes around 2800 BCE. Egyptians used animal and vegetable oils mixed with alkaline salts to make their cleansing substances. Early Romans used, wait for it, urine in making soap. None of these concoctions conjure up thoughts of sensual fragrances wafting on the breeze.

For a long time, the general population didn’t bathe and smelled like a cow barn in high summer. Often, the aristocracy was even more malodorous. As the BBC program Quite Interesting notes, “Most people in the 18th century only had a proper wash twice a year.”

Queen Isabella of Castile boasted that she only bathed twice in her life―once on the day she was born in 1451 and a second time just before her marriage in 1469.

A century later, Don Juan Henry of Navarre favoured many European ladies with his attentions. He seems to have liked natural aromas, for he is said to have written to Gabrielle d’ Estrées with a special request, “Do not wash yourself, my sweetheart, I’ll visit you in three weeks.”

Isabella cleans up nicely.

Isabella cleans up nicely.

Louis XIV of France (below) was described by Russian ambassadors to his court as stinking like a wild animal. The king was, apparently, following the advice of his physicians, who gave a medical opinion that had developed three centuries earlier.

Here’s Quite Interesting again explaining that during the Black Death of the 14th century “a view arose that hot baths made you susceptible to the ‘disease vapours’ by relaxing the body and opening the pores. Washing soon became a remarkably rare occurrence, and things stayed that way for the next 350 years.”

In his 1766 book, Travels Through France and Italy, the Scottish author Tobias Smollett grumbled about bathing which “became altogether a point of luxury borrowed from the effeminate Asiatics, and tended to debilitate the fibres, already too much relaxed by the heat of the climate.”

Louis XIV. Is there the tiniest hint in his expression that his nostrils have picked up a whiff of something unpleasant?

Louis XIV. Is there the tiniest hint in his expression that his nostrils have picked up a whiff of something unpleasant?

Society Progresses Towards Cleanliness

Medical science advanced the idea that cleanliness is healthy and thereby reduced the assault on nasal passages. By early in the 20th century, most people had taken up the habit of bathing regularly, but they still weren’t using enough soap to satisfy the companies that made it.

In 1927, the Association of American Soap and Glycerine Producers hit on a plan to create more demand for its products. So, the association set up the Cleanliness Institute. The idea was that a semi-scientific-sounding group that appeared to be at arm’s length from business interests would be able to convince people to use more soap.


The first target was schoolchildren. The Institute surveyed 157 schools in America and found that only a little more than half of them even had soap in their washrooms. Vincent Vinikas wrote about the industry’s long game in his 1992 book Soft Soap, Hard Sell. He commented that “No approach could better meet the industry’s ends than inculcating every youth in America to a tale of soap-and-water.”

So, the institute churned our teacher’s guides and posters, extolling the virtues of using soap. There were cleanliness broadcasts on radio. Pamphlets were printed showing how foul organisms lurked under fingernails and on dirty hands. Ads were placed in women’s magazines urging them to make sure they and their kids were spotless and hygienic.

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Terry O’Reilly in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program Under the Influence notes that “The goal of the institute was not just to make children clean but to make them love to be clean.”

The campaign worked. Soap sales soared. As Terry O’Reilly reports, “This was a huge change in behaviour. Prior to this, people only bathed a few times a month and soap had only been used to clean clothes.”

Our Cleansed Society

Outside North America, there is a morsel of suspicion that we are a little bit over-obsessed with personal hygiene.

Nowadays, more than 70 percent of people in North America take a daily shower or bath. Soap production has reached 10 billion pounds a year, and one-third is used in North America, although only 12 percent of the world’s population lives here. We’re talking serious coin too. Global sales of soap stand at just under $10 billion a year.

Writing in The New York Times, Sara Ivry notes that “a quarter of new homes in the United States have at least three bathrooms, and Americans have taken to grooming like an extreme sport.”

Today’s shower stall has more sanitizing materials than you can shake a loofah sponge at. There’s bog-standard bar soap and exfoliating soap. There are scores of shower gels with enticing names such as Moonlight Path and Endless Weekend. There’s a product called Jack Black, described as “An energizing two-in-one cleanser that jump-starts the body, awakens the mind, and helps revitalize the immune system.”

And shampoos come in a bewildering number of guises. Dull and listless hair can be made sparkly and shiny. Oily and sticky hair can become bouncy and full. The frizz can be taken out of wild, curly, and unruly hair.

Anti-dandruff shampoo fights for shelf space with volumizers. There are preparations to deal with the dreaded split ends. Even dry shampoos are available to freshen up the locks between washings.

There are stores dedicated to selling nothing but soaps, lotions, unguents, creams, balms, body washes, and all the other paraphernalia associated with cleansing and eliminating natural body odours.

What would Claude Perrault think of all this? He was the architect of the Louvre and several chateaux for the French aristocracy, but he did not put bathrooms in his buildings. He felt that if the body got rancid enough to bring tears to the eyes, one should simply pop on new clothes. “Our usage of linen,” Perrault reasoned, “serves to keep the body clean more conveniently than the baths and vapor baths of the ancients could do.”

Bonus Factoids

  • The word “shampoo” comes from the Hindi language and describes a kind of sensual massage.
  • There’s a movement afoot that says using shampoo is damaging to the lustrous tresses of those that still have such adornments. A rinse every couple of days with water is all that’s needed, its adherents say. The folk advocating this call themselves the “No ‘Poo” movement.
  • Shampoo commercials have green-screen-clad workers who secretly flick the models’ hair.
  • According to the Mary Rose Museum: British Navy sailors in the 18th century washed their clothes in urine.


  • “Washing.” BBC Quite Interesting, undated.
  • “Travels Through France and Italy.” Tobias Smollett, 1766.
  • “How Marketing Created Rituals.” Terry O’Reilly, CBC Under the Influence, January 7, 2015.
  • “That Fresh Feeling.” Sara Ivry, New York Times, December 16, 2007.
  • “Jean-Baptiste Greuze: The Laundress.” Colin B. Bailey, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor

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