Handmade soapballs
for re-enactors of medieval and Elizabethan times.
History of Soapmaking

No-one knows quite when soap was discovered. It was, however, a VERY long time ago.

One of the oldest references dates back to about 2800 BC suggesting that the Babylonians knew about soap and were using it. Sumerian clay tablets from a few hundred years later, about 2500 BC describe using soap to wash wool. (These tablets were found in what is now Iraq). From Sumaria again, this time in about 2200 BC comes an actual formula for soap based on water, alkali, and cassia oil. There's some dispute, however, as to exactly how effective this soap actually was and whether it was used for washing the human skin.

Moving to more modern times, about 600 BC, the Phoenicians mention using soap to remove lanolin from wool in order to dye it.

Some years later the Greek physician, Galen, recommended bathing with soap for the good of ones's health, though from what we know of the quality of soap at the time (a nasty process involving wood ash and a very caustic end product), he may have been a little optimistic.

Until recently it was believed that the remains of Pompeii contained an operational soap factory. The revised theory is that the product was fullers earth rather than soap.

Techniques for soapmaking didn't progress much over the next centuries. The use of soap was certainly common. Throughout this time there are passing references to the craft. Soap seems to have arrived in London in about the 10th century. In 1192 Richard of Devizes (a monk) made a very uncharitable remark about the number of soap-makers in Bristol and the smelly nature of their occupation. During the 12th century we know that Edgar le Saponier was working in London as a soapmaker. Various literature mentions soap and its use. However, nothing much changed until the early Middle Ages.

The next real step was the development of Castille soap - soap made from the saponification of olive oil. (Saponification means "turning into soap"). This gave a much better end product, probably less caustic and certainly made from better ingredients than the previous wood ash, goats' tallow etc. It's worth remembering that this was all BF - Before Fridges - and so the goats' tallow might well have been a tad rank by the time the unfortunate soapmaker came to use it. Castille soap had been known about for a considerable time but it was during this period that it spread from Spain throughout Europe.

Castille soap had two distinct advantages. Firstly, the basic ingredient - olive oil - was far more pleasant to work with than animal fat of dubious age and hygiene. Secondly, it sets into solid bars. It can be shredded and moulded. And so .... soap balls (or wash balls as they're sometimes known) came into being. Castille soap had in fact been known about for many centuries but it is in this period- the Middle Ages - that it came into widespread use.

It's a myth that people of these times didn't bathe: they certainly did, though almost inevitably, this would have been more common amongst the upper classes. They almost certainly used Castille soap. Everyone else presumably used the old wood ash/lye mixture - highly caustic and not condusive to use for skin care. Soap was, in fact, considered a luxury item and taxed accordingly.

Then came the Great Plague, when wash-houses were closed in order to try to stop the spread of the contagion. It was an era when great faith was placed in herbs and plant essences as cures and preventatives, and it was to these that many citizens turned, rather than to soap, water and rat-killers, all of which would have been of far more use.

Almost inevitably, given this interest in botanicals, they were introduced into soap, probably many years if not centuries before, but it was during Tudor times when scented soap became a "must-have" item. It is from this period that many of the soapball recipes originate. Some of these are simple: many are quite sophisticated. They are hard to replicate today because we now know that ingredients used are skin sensitisers, if not downright dangerous. However, it is possible to produce quite reasonable copies of them.

Soapmaking underwent three major developments after that. The first was the development of commercially produced caustic soda, an essential ingredient in soapmaking. The second was the production in the early part of the 20th century of the syndet bar (syndet = synthetic detergent). This is the type of soap sold in most supermarkets and chemists, and hated with a passion by today's craft soapmakers. The third development took place about ten years ago, when the old skills of making Castille soap were rediscovered and updated, leading to today's handcrafted soap industry (hated with a passion by the makers of syndet bars).


Soapballs produced by Historical Balls are based on old recipes and/or botanicals and other ingredients which would have been available in earlier centuries, but adjusted to allow for our modern sensitivities - like not wanting caustic burns on our hands through using soap. I've tried to make the soapballs as authentic as possible given the constraints of about 600 pages of legislation and the need not to poison anyone.

If anyone wants to comment on any of this or add an article to this site, they're more than welcome to do so. Email me with "Historical Balls" in the subject line and we'll take it from there.

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New section Picture Gallery
courtesy of the Norwich & Norfolk Mediaeval Association.


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