Tuesday, 24 August 2010

History of Soap making

An occasional history of soap making...
'as old as olives'
Christian and I were talking about the olive tree the other night. This was possibly because we were eating olives, with a glass of wine, while Christian was cooking a goat stew.
There's more about goats later, but to get back to the olive tree - it gives us shade; the leaves are said to be medicinal; we can eat the fruit and also press it into my favourite oil for culinary use and natural skincare (including our soap). It is no accident that olive oil is the largest ingredient by weight in our Colne Bar.
As well as all this, the tree gives you a nicely grained hardwood that can be used to make beautiful bowls and furniture.
The olive tree is thought to originate from Syria, which is still a significant producer of olive oil. From Syria, the olive spread fast to Mediterranean countries, most notably Ancient Greece, where the tree was considered holy and you could be punished for cutting one down.
Maybe the olives are a small diversion however, (patience grasshopper) as the first recorded recipes for soap contained different oils. The earliest record of the production of soap-like material dates back to around 2800 BC in Ancient Babylon. This was a formula for soap consisting of water, alkali and cassia oil, written on a Babylonian clay tablet around 2200 BC. However, I quite liked the recipe (550 BC) for soap containing ashes, cypress oil and sesame seed oil, "for washing the stones for the servant girls". It must have made the lives of those hardworking young women a lot easier.
The ashes provided the alkali necessary to saponify the oils to make soap. Wood-ash was, and still is the alkali most readily available for the production of handmade soap – hand made of necessity, by homesteaders in the wild west and elsewhere, and still today, in countries with lower levels of material well-being. Tallow or other animal fats were used by homesteaders, however in places where vegetable oils can be economically extracted, these might be used too. I've recently read about some new soap-recycling schemes aimed at the less economically developed parts of the world. This is one of them: http://www.cleantheworld.org/– but perhaps there are other interventions that could be effective in helping control disease and wouldn't involve energy expended in mechanically re-processing and transporting used bits of soap thousands of miles. Making soap by hand involves very little energy and is something people have done for millennia. I note however that there are significant tax benefits for the US hotels participating in this scheme.
So, oil and alkali and the beginnings of soap in Ancient Babylon.
There is a soap museum in Sidon, in Lebanon- part of the Ancient Babylonion empire. http://www.itnsource.com/shotlist/RTV/2010/03/15/RTV649210/?v=1&a=0
Searching around all the sources on this, I found the 'old as olives' quote, which I like very much. Here it is in full:
'Soap industry on the Lebanese coast is as old as olives. The age of olives extending in the area from Palestine towards the Lebanese coast goes back to thousands of years BC'
I'd guess that the soap in the Lebanese museum could still produce a lather, but might have lost a lot of its water content over all those years. I've always wanted to go to Lebanon...
Aah the goats, oops nearly forgot about them. A clue- goatsmilk lovely stuff. As good in soap as olive oil. (not to be confused with Olive Oyl)
Photo of Sidon Soap Musem: - copyright of the photo pertains as follows:

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