Many legends refer to the invention of soap. One story places its creation in ancient Rome on the spot where priests used to sacrifice animals to their Gods by burning them on altars situated on hill-tops.
When the remains, a mixture of burnt animal fat and ash, came into contact with rain water, it flowed down from the hillsides into foaming pools. Women clothes washers observed that this sudsy mixture cleaned better than plain water and gathered pieces of this incredible product.
Interestingly, the part of Rome where all this happened was of course called Sapo.
The first literary reference to soap is found in the texts of Pliny the Old, a latin writer. According to him, soap was invented by the Gallic people using a mixture of goat fat and beech tree ashes and was used to color hair red. Apparently there was also a liquid version of this mixture.
This "Gallic" shampoo was known all around the Mediterranean region - from Greece to Italy and north to Gaul.
We also know that Ancient Greeks used the sap of a plant called saponaria and the Romans also experimented with a clay that came from decomposed schists.
Throughout history soap has played a vital role in the daily lives of women and we are reminded that up till 100 years ago washing clothes with water poured on ashes was still one of the most important tasks of women.
The History of Marseille Soap
It was in the Middle Ages however, that soap manufacturing came to Provence. This was due in large part to the fact that the principal ingredients of soap, olive oil, salt and soda ashes fom the Camargue- were produced in the region.
As a result, in the XVIth century Marseille became the first official soap manufacturer in France, followed closely by Salon-de-Provence and Toulon.
In 1688, under Louis XIV (also known as the Count of Provence), the official "Edict of Colbert" was proclaimed which forbid the use of any animal fat in the production of Marseille soap and allowed only the use of pure olive oil. The law goes on to state that violation of this vital production rule could put one out of business and run out of Provence !
The golden period for Marseille soap was during the French Revolution when it competed for top soap honors with yellow colored palm oil soaps from Great Britain and sesame and peanut oil soap from Paris.
As these "new oils", such as coconut and palm, made their way to Marseille on ships from French Colonies, the Marseilles soap factories began to make new formulations using these pure vegetable oils.