Soap has a history going back as far as 6000 years but no one knows exactly when soap was discovered. There are many legends about its beginning. Roman legend has it that soap was named after Mount Sapo, an ancient site of animal sacrifices. After an animal sacrifice, rain would wash animal fat and ash, that collected under the ceremonial altars, down to the banks of the Tiber River. When local women washed clothes in the river they noticed that if they washed their clothes in certain parts of the water after a heavy rain their clothes were much cleaner. The earliest known soap recipe is credited to the ancient Babylonians around 2800 BC. A soap-like material found in clay cylinders during the excavation of ancient Babylon is evidence that soapmaking was known this early. Inscriptions on the cylinders say that fats were boiled with wood ash, a soap-making method.
Moses gave the Israelites detailed laws governing personal cleanliness. Biblical accounts suggest that the Israelites knew that mixing ashes and oil produced a kind of gel that could be used on hair. Soap is mentioned twice in the Bible, but it is generally agreed that the Hebrew word 'borith' which has been translated as soap, is a generic term for any cleansing agent made from wood or vegetable ashes.
Bathing habits all over Europe rose and declined with Roman civilization. When Rome fell in 467 AD, so did bathing. It is believed that the lack of cleanliness and poor living conditions contributed to the many plagues of the Middle Ages.
Not until the seventh century did soapmakers appear in Spain and Italy where soap was made with goat fat and Beech tree ashes. During the same period, the French started using olive oil to make soap. Marseille soap has been made in the south of France for more than six centuries. The recipe was first officially recognized in 1688 during the reign of Louis XIV, the 'Sun King'. Eventually, fragrances were introduced and specialized soaps for bathing, shaving, shampooing, and laundry began to appear. There is a story that King Louis XIV of France executed three soapmakers for making a bar that irritated his very sensitive Royal skin...
In the United States, by the beginning of the 19th century, soap making was one of the fastest growing industries. Rural Americans made homemade soap using a process developed during Colonial times. They would save ashes from their fires for months. When they had enough fat left over from butchering hogs they would make soap.