For many years, soap was mostly used to clean clothing or structures – but not bodies. Even the ancient Romans didn’t really bathe with soap, and people wouldn’t pick up the practice for centuries. However, soaps made from vegetable oil briefly gained prominence among the elite during the Middle Ages. The first of these was called Aleppo soap; it was a green bar made from a base of olive oil and infused with aromatic laurel oil. Aleppo soap came from Syria, but the French, Italian, Spanish, and English quickly created their own versions of the product. However, bar soap fell out of favor from the 1500s through the 1700s, a time during which most Europeans stopped bathing regularly due to fears that water spread disease. This hesitance extended to the American Colonies as well.
It wasn’t until the Civil War that things began to change. Washing with soap and water was encouraged as a sanitary measure to aid the Union war effort, and this helped the practice of bathing regularly with soap and water finally catch on among the masses. Public demand for bathing soaps increased significantly at the time, so companies began to create new products to sell to clamoring consumers. In 1879, P&G introduced Ivory soap, which was one the first perfumed soaps for bathing sold in the United States. In 1898, the B.J. Johnson Soap Company debuted their Palmolive soap, which became the world’s best-selling soap in the early 1900s. In 1909, hydrogenated fats were discovered. This revolutionized soap making because it was less dependent on animal byproducts. Today, soaps are often made in a lab and combine synthesized animal fats or plant-derived bases with various additives, including oils, moisturizers, lathering agents, and scents.