Facts That Figure: Soap

Facts That Figure: Soap

By: C.G. Hoffman

Why do pirates always carry a bar of soap?

So just in case they go overboard they can wash up on shore!

Okay, that’s awfully corny. I tried to make another soap joke, but it slipped my mind!

Here are some squeaky clean facts about soap.

Soap is first recorded being used in ancient Mesopotamia, probably as a result of one Bavli Balebusta burning her dinner. You see, all soap is created the same way. Some form of fat is mixed with lye, a byproduct of ashes, which then hardens to a solid form of soap, which people soon realized was a great way to get grubby ancient kinderlach clean. It doesn’t actually kill germs, it creates a chemical reaction which in turn creates a slippery surface that scrubs away dirt and which makes it hard for germs to adhere.

Archaeologists have unearthed what may be the oldest soap making factory in the world, in a Bedouin town in Israel. In the 9th century, the site was used to make soap from olive oil, plentiful in the region, and then exported throughout the Muslim world. Muslims were scrupulous about cleanliness, medieval Europeans, erm, considerably less so.

For a long time, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages, which might as well have been called Ye Olde Smelly Ages. Many people believed that immersing the body in water would open up the pores and absorb unhealthy “humors” and make people sick. Jews were considerably cleaner than their counterparts, with every European village containing a mikvah and bathhouse, as proscribed in the Gemara, which forbids one to live in a town that does not have a bathhouse. The lower rate of Jewish deaths from the Black Death in the 14th century, is mainly due to higher standards of cleanliness.

Europeans mostly used animal fats to produce soap, and for centuries, soapmaking was a byproduct of animal butchering, and often located next to slaughterhouses. In Castile, Spain, where olive oil is plentiful and perhaps due to Muslim and Jewish influence, locals produced a lovely soap made from olive oil, and which is still made today and sold as Castile Soap.

In America, the soap industry started alongside the candle industry, as both were made from tallow, which is animal fat. In Cincinnati, candle maker William Procter expanded his operations to include soapmaking, eventually partnering with James Gamble to create what would become the world’s largest consumer goods company, Procter & Gamble.

Nobody knows how the story of the origins of Ivory soap first came about. The legend is that one lazy factory worker took an overlong lunch break and came back to find that the soap had been overmixed and was way too fluffy. Not wanting to throw away the entire batch, an enterprising advertising exec came up with the slogan “So pure, it floats!” Nobody ever stopped to think why they actually needed floating soap, and the newly marketed Ivory soap started flying off shelves!

Keeping the house and laundry clean was a laborious process in the 1800’s, especially as the Victorians prized cleanliness above all virtues. Housewives, (or their maids) would have to grate hard bars of caustic soap, and then mix the flakes with boiling water. A Frenchman first started selling pre grated soap flakes, marketed as “Lux,” in 1899, which made the work a lot easier. This paved the way for the eventual introduction of powdered detergents, with Persil, the world’s first powder detergent being introduced in the early 20th century.

In the mid 1800’s, an enterprising Frum Jew, Yisroel Rokeach produced the first factory manufactured kosher soap, using coconut oil instead of the commonly used animal fats. Rokeach’s soap received the highest form of approbation, with a hechsher from Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor, chief rabbi of Kovno. He emigrated to the US, where Rokeach’s kosher soap became a staple in every American kosher kitchen.

The more technology advances, the more people… go back to the old ways! Soapmaking has seen a new heyday, as artisanal handmade soaps are now being seen everywhere, both manufactured in historic soap making premises using old methods, or as a cottage industry where women produce their own soaps at home and sell them at fairs and local shops.

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