early times

The decline of the Roman Empire, and less frequent bathing habits, saw a lack of cleanliness that impacted upon public health.

Filthy living conditions contributed to the great plagues of the Middle Ages, and through to the Black Death in the 14th century.

Soap use was limited during the European Dark Ages and it wasn't revived until the 8th century in Italy and Spain.

europe

Castile soaps were called the "Queen of Soap"
Castile soaps were called the "Queen of Soap"

Castile soap was produced in Castilla, Spain from olive oil, while the French equivalent was produced in the southern ports such as Marseilles.

During this period Genoa, Bari and Venice became important soap making centres in Italy.

These European regions had sufficient supplies of two important soap making ingredients, olive oil and barilla (lye was made from the ashes of the barilla plant).

Because the European soaps were far superior, an export trade to Britain developed and Castile soaps became known as the "Queen of Soap".

britain

The Celts are believed to have reintroduced soap to Britain in around 1,000 AD where soap was usually made from either beef or mutton tallow; by the 13th century there were soapmakers in Bristol, and in Coventry by the 14th century.

Before refrigerated transport, tallow was a major export to Europe from various colonies around the world that took advantage of vast new grazing lands.

As imported oils such as palm and coconut became available, the main British soapmaking centres were found in seaports such as Bristol and London.

Centres also appeared in York and Hull. Soper's Lane, which was later named Queen Street, was located at Blackfriars, close to the Thames River.

Soapmakers in Britain completed a lengthy apprenticeship, and secrets about the trade were closely guarded through guilds and apprentices progressed after many years to become a journeyman, and finally, a master.

Although a reasonable amount of soap was being produced, it was more commonly used for laundering than for personal use, and body odours were kept in check by using perfume.

In fact, Queen Elizabeth is reputed to have bathed every three months (whether she needed it or not!).

a turning point

Two factors helped make the use of soap more widespread.

Firstly, Nicholas Leblanc, a French chemist, discovered a process in 1791 that enabled lye to be made easily and cheaply from common salt.

Secondly, advances in plumbing meant that many people now had access to running water.

Throughout the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, soap was considered to be more a medical treatment prescribed by a physician, than part of a bathing routine.

soapmakers heavily regulated

Soap was still expensive during the first half of the nineteenth century because of the hefty taxes imposed.

Charles I granted soapmakers a monopoly for production of soap in return for a minimum guaranteed price per ton.

Soapmakers' pans were fitted with padlocks, and official excisemen were required to each soapmaking production.

Finally, the tax on soap was abolished in 1852 by Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and soap became more widely available.

It is estimated that the annual tax revenue lost was more than £1,000,000.

England's oldest soap firm, Pears, was soon rivalled by other manufacturers such as Yardley and Lever Brothers, as tallow made its way from the colonies.