There are many stories about how soap was discovered. We know that personal cleanliness dates back to historic times. But how did we get from soap to detergent?
There are many stories about when and how soap was discovered. We know that personal cleanliness dates back to prehistoric times. The earliest people always lived near water and used it for cleaning. Archeologists have also found several soap-like materials dating back to 2800 BC, but no one knows if they used them like we use soap today.
The name for soap, sapo, comes from an ancient Roman legend. The legend says that at Mount Sapo, people sacrificed animals. Rain came and washed the melted animal fat (also called tallow) and wood ashes down to the clay soil by the Tiber River. The Roman women discovered this clay made their wash cleaner and that they didn't have to work so hard.
During the seventh century, soap makers in Spain, France and Italy used olive oil to make soap. Eventually, soap makers began to add fragrance to their soaps and make specialized ones for bathing, shaving, shampooing and laundry.
Before the 1930s, we made soap in small amounts using kettle boiling. Commercial soap makers used huge three-story kettles to produce thousands of pounds of soap over the course of a week. In the 1930s, Procter & Gamble invented a process that decreased soap-making time to less than one day.
Although they are similar in purpose, soaps and detergents are different in chemical composition — what's in them and how we make them. Detergents are relatively new.
The first synthetic detergent came in Germany because of a shortage of soap-making fats brought on by World War I (1914-19). Americans used soap flakes to clean their clothes in the 1920s. Household detergent production in the United States started in the early 1930s, but it did not take hold until after World War II ended (1945).
In 1933, P&G introduced a detergent called Dreft®, but then it could only clean lightly soiled laundry. After much research and hard work, P&G created Tide® in 1943. Tide is a detergent that combines synthetic surfactants with "builders," for heavily soiled clothes. The builders help the synthetic surfactants penetrate clothes more deeply to remove more stains. In 1946, P&G introduced Tide in test markets and people made it the best-selling detergent within weeks. The rest is history!
Soap box science - the "unofficial" history of laundry