To make soap or grow soap? That is the question.
Soap making within ancient civilizations (primarily Roman, Greek, Babylonian and Egyptian) can be traced to Biblical ages (centuries B.C.). Animal fats, tallow, vegetable oils, clays, ashes, salts and numerous ingredients were commonly used. For this article, the different types of soaps are not relevant to soap nuts. Only the fact that they were man-made is very significant.
The soaps used by most of mankind throughout history were not picked from a tree, as are soap berries. Hence, soap producing berries are exceptionally unique. Just the idea of a fruit producing soap is tough to grasp. However, once embraced it becomes very intriguing. The level of excitement in people continually amazes me once they begin to see all the possibilities soap nuts offer us.
Soap was originally produced in large part as a medicinal product. Centuries later it became recognized as a cleanser. The early ancient Romans used olive oil for personal hygiene – not soap. A mixture of olive oil and sand was applied and scraped off in order to cleanse and exfoliate the body. Ancient Greeks also used exfoliation by other means as their primary method of cleansing and maintaining personal hygiene. At some point during the height of the Great Roman Empire soap (Latin: sapo) became widely recognized as a personal cleaning product. A soap making facility and soap bars of man-made soap were uncovered in the ruins of Pompeii. Soap nuts were not in the picture – at all.
There is little evidence that any form of soap was used in cleaning fabrics during ancient times. Water and agitation were the primary means of washing laundry. I’m certain that we’ll never go back to water and rocks for doing laundry, but this indicates just how little we know about how to clean fabrics properly – even today. A surfactant (such as soap nuts or any soap) would have simply made laundry day a little easier.
Sadly, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the importance of personal hygiene took a major dive throughout the lands ruled by the Empire. It is suspected that this decline in personal hygiene resulted in many of the major plagues in Europe during the Middle Ages. It was man’s greed that led to this decline.
During the centuries after the fall, European soap making began to really take off. It began being produced at commercial levels. In the 1600s, English King James I granted the exclusive rights to a single manufacturer in exchange for huge annual payments. It was even taxed and essentially became a luxury item. Soap was not readily available to the average consumer due to its high cost.
Bottom line: Man-made soap has been a major moneymaker for ages. Fortunes were made then – and still are still being made today. For all of Europe and the new western hemisphere the stage was set. There was no incentive for businesses to look for a natural soap – particularly something like soap nuts which abundantly grows on trees. Many powerful people had a great thing going. People were getting rich, and nobody wanted to change a thing – with the exception of making the businesses even more profitable via producing cheaper commercial soaps, detergents and cleaners.
Soaps, as we know them today, did not appear until around the early 1800s – not far off from when P & G first opened their doors. (Old-fashioned, glycerin-rich soap is nothing like what comes out of the factories today. Ask any true soap maker sometime.) For a great article about what man did with soap to trick us, visit: http://www.naturoli.com/mission/powermarketing.html
Does anyone find it ironic that one of the earliest known sources of a cleansing medium was naturally growing on a tree (olives), and today we are discovering another totally natural cleansing medium (soap nuts) growing on trees – over 2,000 years later?
Thankfully, a huge grassroots movement – the GREEN movement – emerged in this century and has placed an enormous emphasis on safe, chemical-free alternatives to today’s chemical laden products. In many ways the re-discovery of soap nuts is a direct result of this newfound emphasis and energy. Soap nuts are, as the “Green Dot Award” jury put it, “…possibly the most significant green innovation in history for everyday cleaning needs…” Soap nuts will change what and how we think about soap. And also what we DO when it comes to cleaning.
Important note: In no way is this article to cast a shadow on today’s handmade soap making – quite the contrary. Real soap making is an art and a science. Soap-makers are a very special, wonderful breed that cares about healthy, nutrient rich formulations. Some small businesses and people at home are making genuinely fabulous, luxurious soaps – nothing whatsoever like today’s commercial soaps. At NaturOli we still hand pour pure, glycerin-rich soap bars and produce amazingly effective, moisturizing, chemical-free liquid soaps and washes. Most true soap-makers I know embrace soap nuts and saponin. Soap nuts make for another wonderful ingredient that can be used in soap making, plus they are appreciated for their myriad of other uses. Soap nuts will never replace true, pure, chemical-free soaps. Such soaps are a must-try if you have never experienced the quality and richness of them.