Legend has it that women discovered the existence of soap in ancient Greece. They would go to the river that flowed beneath Mount Sapo to wash their clothes in the cool water of the river and noticed that the stench of the clothing would go away and that there were strange bubbles in the water. They were to learn later that the fat from animals sacrrificed on the mountain would blend with potash - a crude predecessor of lye. These two substances would combine with rain water from the heavens, resulting in what soapmakers today refer to as saponification.
Soap is a chemical reaction between oils and fats, lye and water. Yes, modern day soapmakers use drain cleaner to make your soaps, but not just any drain cleaner. Red Devil Lye is used in soapmaking because it is 99.9% pure lye. Other drain cleaners have additives besides lye added to them and because of this are not good choices for soapmaking.
The experienced soapmakers who work carefully and respect the strength of sodium hydroxide, weigh their ingredients carefully, using between 5 to 7% more oils and fats in their recipes to establish what is called a superfat percentage, typically 6 percent, in their soaps. To do this, soapmakers have digital top of the line scales.
In pioneer times it is said that "grandma's lye soap will tan the hide off of you!" Well, it probably did! Pioneers did not have scales to measure their ingredients - thus the soap they produced was at times, caustic. Generally, soap was used more for cleaning than bathing.
Let's go back just a little further in time. The annals of history tell a tale of a spanish princess who had two baths in her life. She got a bath the day she was born, and she got a bath when she got married. That was it!
It is in the 19th century that people became more interested in using soap to clean their bodies as well as their homes. Soapmaking was considered a really boring and tedious job. Enter into history, the profession of the soap boiler.
The soap boiler would gather the fat trimminings that a family stored over the winter, make soap from it, and produce the desired product, soap - for a fee, that is.
It was not long after this that mercantiles started carrying soap by the log as handcrafted by the soap boiler industry.
The Palmolive brothers came form England to make soap in this country. It is interesting to note that Colgate, the company responsible for making toothpaste, actually got its start as a soap boiler company!
We are all familiar with Benjamin Franklin, to whom we credit the discovery of electricity. But few of us know that Benjamin's father was a soapmaker and that his brother drowned in the soap vat.
Ivory soap was created by accident. One of the workers of the soap boiler company went to lunch and left the mixer on. The soap was mixed so much that air was incorporated into the soap. What was made in error actually became one of the most popular commercial soaps today. They say that Ivory soap, floats!
In the 1970's Sandy Maine of the SunFeather Soap Company started the resurgence of the soap boiler industry in the United States and beyond, when she wrote her book entitled The Soap Book. Her book became a best seller, resulting in a cottage industry of soapmakers stirring pots of freshly made soap all over this country. If you look on the internet for handmade soap in your state, you will find more than a handful of soapmakers who sell fragrant handmade soap at farmers markets, fairs and church bazaars, as well as retail. They continue a time honored tradition that has been used for hundreds of years,
Buy a bar of handmade soap from a soapmaker. You may never want to go back to commercial soap again.