Civilization vs. Dirt: A History of Soap

B Y   T O M   T O R T O R I C I

Um, isn’t this blog usually about marketing? It is. Which brings us to a type of branded content I call Branded History. I wrote the piece below for a company that sells commercial detergents for the pressure washing of houses and truck fleets.

The article starts out by exploring the past of something we use (and take for granted) every day. It then segues into the story of the company in question, essentially putting them in the direct flow of history…


Before there was much of anything to clean, there was water.

As mankind’s first cleaning chemical, it was a pretty effective one; you could easily wash the mud off your hands in a waterfall, creek, or ocean. Because of its molecular structure, many substances simply dissolved, and were rinsed away, in water, which is why it’s considered the ‘universal solvent.’

Around 2200 BC, the ancient Babylonians found a way to improve water’s cleaning power, and like so many great discoveries, it was by accident. Water had been used to clean cooking utensils that were covered in animal fat and wood ash. By combining the three substances, they inadvertently created the world’s first soap.

The Egyptians used vegetable oils and alkaline salts to make their soap, and were perhaps the first people to regularly bathe their bodies and launder their clothes. Did that bit of progress improve human social interaction, leading to the development of advanced societies? History doesn’t say.

The hearty people of the Greek empire managed to wash themselves without soap or water. They’d rub down their bodies with clay, sand, pumice or ashes. Then they’d cover themselves with oil, and finally scrape the oil off with metal blades. Yes, really.


Soap gets a win, then goes into a slump

The Romans rediscovered the benefits of soap and water, again by accident. Atop Mount Sapo, animal sacrifices were traditionally practiced. When it rained, animal fat and volcanic ash flowed down into the Tiber River. The mixture created a lye soap solution, making the river an ideal place to wash up. And ‘Sapo’ became the basis for our word ‘soap.’

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the tradition of washing ourselves and our stuff went away, ushering in 1000 years of uncleanliness and bad hygiene, not to mention several deadly plagues.


A new awareness leads to a new industry

Finally, in the late 1600s, cleanliness came back into fashion in Europe, as people made the connection between personal hygiene and defense against disease. Manufactured bars of soap became   available, along with — of course — advertising campaigns to promote them.

In some countries, though, soap was taxed as a luxury item. Eventually that tax was removed, enabling even people of modest means to enjoy clean bodies and possessions.

In 1898, B.J. Johnson developed the first formula for liquid soap. Since it was made from palm and olive oils, he called it Palmolive. It was an instant hit, raising standards and lowering effort for the nightly dishwashing.

The first liquid soap for household cleaning followed; made from pine oil, it was branded as Pine-Sol.


Cleaner living through chemistry

During WWI, the animal fats that were still used to make soap were in short supply, so chemists in Germany created a cleaning chemical made from synthetic, as opposed to natural, ingredients. The result? The first detergent.

Proctor & Gamble’s labs resurrected the detergent idea in 1943. The laundry ‘soap flakes’ they had been selling turned both white and color clothes greyish. They improved the synthetic surfactants by adding phosphate compounds and other enzymes.

The result was Tide®, which could penetrate greasy, difficult stains that soap and water couldn’t. The product became so popular, especially in areas with mineralized or ‘hard’ water, that stores had to limit the quantity that each housewife could purchase.

By the 1950s, detergents had replaced soaps for washing clothes in developed countries. In the ‘80s, detergents were formulated that could clean in cold water. In the ‘90s, super concentrated liquid detergents came out, and in the 2000s, biodegradable, green-friendly products were introduced.

Today, even bar soap is not technically soap; It’s a petroleum- or synthetic-based bar of detergent. Real soap is only available from natural-product companies.


Power washing becomes an industry

The first commercial high-pressure washing of buildings and vehicles in the 1960s went back to basics — just water, the hotter the better. But specialized detergents evolved, as well as the ability to inject cleaning chemicals into the water stream.

However those chemicals were often caustic, removing paint as well as dirt, not to mention dangerous to all forms of life.

In the 1980s, pressure washing contractor John Allison began developing a safer, more effective detergent in a homemade lab. By the next decade, he had figured out how to defy the laws of chemical compounding with his super-concentrated SuperFlo Polymer.

The powerful yet green-friendly detergent made from that formula was an immediate success among cleaning contractors all over. Under the brand EnviroSpec, Allison developed a family of safe, specialized cleaning chemicals for every possible purpose.

Since that time, everything from houses and trucks to commercial kitchens and gravestones aren’t just cleaner. They’re not just better protected against pollutants. But to the delight of their owners, they actually appear newer than they used to.


If you find this stuff interesting, watch for my next post about the history of banking (written for a bank, of course).  

If you know a company that wouldn’t mind being seen as a legacy within their industry, maybe I can write a Branded History for them too. Ping me at

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Tom TortoriciAbout the Author:  Tom Tortorici is an Atlanta copywriter and web content writer who helps companies make a genuine connection with their audience. His classes and conference presentations have focused on how writing, strategy and design can work together to grab attention and interest even among readers with short attention spans. In addition to working directly with businesses, Tom regularly partners with web designers and marketing agencies.

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