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“Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.” That’s what the CDC has advised all Americans to do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during this pandemic.
It’s common-sense advice. The surfactants found in soap lift germs from the skin, and water then washes them away. Soap is inexpensive and ubiquitous; it’s a consumer product found in every household across the country.
Yet few people know the long and dirty history of making soap, the product we all rely on to clean our skin. I’m a historian who focuses on material culture in much of my research. As I started digging into what’s known about soap’s use in the past, I was surprised to discover its messy origins.
Gross ingredients to clean things up
Ancient Mesopotamians were first to produce a kind of soap by cooking fatty acids – like the fat rendered from a slaughtered cow, sheep or goat – together with water and an alkaline like lye, a caustic substance derived from wood ashes. The result was a greasy and smelly goop that lifted away dirt.
An early mention of soap comes in Roman scholar Pliny the Elder’s book “Naturalis Historia” from A.D. 77. He described soap as a pomade made of tallow – typically derived from beef fat – and ashes that the Gauls, particularly the men, applied to their hair to give it “a reddish tint.”
Ancient people used these early soaps to clean wool or cotton fibers before weaving them into cloth, rather than for human hygiene. Not even the Greeks and Romans, who pioneered running water and public baths, used soap to clean their bodies. Instead, men and women immersed themselves in water baths and then smeared their bodies with scented olive oils. They used a metal or reed scraper called a strigil to remove any remaining oil or grime.
By the Middle Ages, new vegetable-oil-based soaps, which were hailed for their mildness and purity and smelled good, had come into use as luxury items among Europe’s most privileged classes. The first of these, Aleppo soap, a green, olive-oil-based bar soap infused with aromatic laurel oil, was produced in Syria and brought to Europe by Christian crusaders and traders.
French, Italian, Spanish and eventually English versions soon followed. Of these, Jabon de Castilla, or Castile soap, named for the region of central Spain where it was produced, was the best known. The white, olive-oil-based bar soap was a wildly popular toiletry item among European royals. Castile soap became a generic term for any hard soap of this type.
The settlement of the American colonies coincided with an age (1500s-1700s) when most Europeans, whether privileged or poor, had turned away from regular bathing out of fear that water actually spread disease. Colonists used soap primarily for domestic cleaning, and soap-making was part of the seasonal domestic routine overseen by women.
As one Connecticut woman described it in 1775, women stored fat from butchering, grease from cooking and wood ashes over the winter months. In the spring, they made lye from the ashes and then boiled it with fat and grease in a giant kettle. This produced a soft soap that women used to wash the linen shifts that colonists wore as undergarments.
In the new nation, the founding of soap manufactories like New York-based Colgate, founded in 1807, or the Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, founded in 1837, increased the scale of soap production but did little to alter its ingredients or use. Middle-class Americans had resumed water bathing, but still shunned soap.
Soap-making remained an extension of the tallow trade that was closely allied with candle making. Soap itself was for laundry. At the first P&G factory, laborers used large cauldrons to boil down fat collected from homes, hotels and butchers to make the candles and soap they sold.
From cleaning objects to cleaning bodies
The Civil War was the watershed. Thanks to reformers who touted regular washing with water and soap as a sanitary measure to aid the Union war effort, bathing for personal hygiene caught on. Demand for inexpensive toilet soaps increased dramatically among the masses.
Companies began to develop and market a variety of new products to consumers. In 1879, P&G introduced Ivory soap, one of the first perfumed toilet soaps in the U.S. B.J. Johnson Soap Company of Milwaukee followed with their own palm-and-olive-oil-based Palmolive soap in 1898. It was the world’s best-selling soap by the early 1900s.
Soap chemistry also began to change, paving the way for the modern era. At P&G, decades of laboratory experiments with imported coconut and palm oil, and then with domestically produced cottonseed oil, led to the discovery of hydrogenated fats in 1909. These solid, vegetable-based fats revolutionized soap by making its manufacture less dependent on animal byproducts. Shortages of fats and oils for soap during World Wars I and II also led to the discovery of synthetic detergents as a “superior” substitute for fat-based laundry soaps, household cleaners and shampoos.
Today’s commercially manufactured soaps are highly specialized, lab-engineered products. Synthesized animal fats and plant-based oils and bases are combined with chemical additives, including moisturizers, conditioners, lathering agents, colors and scents, to make soaps more appealing to the senses. But they cannot fully mask its mostly foul ingredients, including shower gels’ petroleum-based contents.
As a 1947 history of P&G observed: “Soap is a desperately ordinary substance to us.” As unremarkable as it is during normal times, soap has risen to prominence during this pandemic.
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From war elephants to cheap electronics: modern globalisation has its roots in ancient trade networks
But globalisation isn’t new. Archaeological research shows it began in antiquity.
A global economy, with luxury consumerism and global interconnectivity, linked Europe, Africa and Asia at least 5,000 years ago and was widespread 2,000 years ago.
Over the past decade, archaeological excavations of ancient ports of trade have revealed prosperous networks of maritime and terrestrial trade that flourished in the ancient world.
Recent discoveries challenge our understanding of global economies and international connectivity through studies of architecture, excavated trade goods, and “ecofacts”: organic evidence (such as seeds, pollen or various sediments) associated with human activity.
Commercial ports and hubs linked the Indus Valley civilisation in South Asia with those of ancient Dilmun (current-day Bahrain) – a southern gate to Mesopotamia – some 4,500 years ago.
The Roman and Han empires – and everyone in between – were directly connected through outposts across the Indian Ocean some 2,000 years ago, foreshadowing our globalised world.
Common goods and exotic luxuries
Berenike, a small Roman city of about 2,000 inhabitants on the southern Red Sea coast of Egypt, was one of the key international trading hubs. The site was operational for over 800 years from its foundation by the Pharaoh Ptolemy II to bring African war elephants to Egypt.
The city was one of the starting points of the Periplus Maris Erythraei (Circumnavigation of the Red Sea), an ancient merchant guidebook written in the first century CE. Located strategically at the northernmost reach of the monsoon winds, Berenike received goods from across the Indian Ocean to be packed on camel caravans and transported along desert routes to the Nile. At the Nile port of Coptos, goods were reloaded onto riverine ships travelling to Alexandria and then across the Mediterranean.
Excavations at Berenike have yielded organic remains, common trade goods and exotic luxuries. These attest to contacts as far north and west as Spain and Britain and as far south and east as southern Arabia, sub-Saharan Africa and Sri Lanka. Indirectly, these ports provided contact with Vietnam, Thailand and eastern Java.
It is believed Berenike fell into disuse around the sixth century CE due to the Plague of Justinian.
An interconnected world
Humans have been involved in seafaring since the Stone Age. Over time, shipbuilding and navigation technologies improved. More than 2,000 years ago, Indian, Arab and Roman seafarers mastered the monsoon routes.
By understanding Red Sea wind patterns and Indian Ocean monsoons, the journey to South Asia could be made without reliance on time-consuming coastal hopping.
In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, explorers like Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan set out on journeys with an almost single-minded purpose: to acquire exotic spices. This “Age of Exploration” came long after far-distance trade bridged continents.
In July 1497, de Gama left Lisbon, arriving in the Kenyan port of Malindi in April. There, he hired an Arab mathematician, Ahmed Ibn Magid, who flawlessly navigated the monsoon route to the Indian port of Kozhikode.
After circumnavigating Africa and 23 days of open sea voyage, da Gama and Ibn Magid arrived on the Malabar Coast in a journey of under a year.
Similar journeys would also have taken just under a year in Roman times: by sea from Rome to Alexandria, by river from Alexandria to Coptos, by caravan from Coptos to a Red Sea port, and across the sea to India. Dependent upon monsoon winds, Roman merchants could undertake this journey only once a year in each direction.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, improvements in shipbuilding and the opening of the Suez Canal reduced the journey from England to India to between four and six months, running all year round in both directions. Nowadays the Suez Canal records upward of 20,000 passages a year.
Today, powerful modern cargo ships take 20 days on the same route. You can fly from London to Mumbai in nine hours.
The unprecedented rapid spread of COVID-19 is just one of the many legacies of the globalised ancient world.
Internationalised old world
With borders closing and travel restrictions remaining widespread, many are questioning “modern” globalisation, but far-distance trade and exchange networks have interconnected the world since the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BCE).
Ongoing archaeological investigations help shape important narratives relating to human mobility, placing modern debates about cross-cultural interchange, migrants-versus-expats narratives, global and local religions, forced and voluntary migration, as well as adaptation and assimilation patterns within a wider historical framework.
In the world of growing political division, it is important to remember the ancient world, with all of its shortcomings, was open, tolerant and multiracial. It was not that strikingly different to the world of today.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of WD-40.