Here's the scoop on the sometimes troubling history of soap


Samuel Damren

This is the first commentary in a series on science, religion, and politics. Some of the topics are familiar; but various perspectives and their pinball-like interplay are surprising.

The topic for this commentary is soap.

Recipes for soap can be found on clay tablets in Mesopotamia dating back to 2200 B.C. – take ashes from a wood fire, dissolve in water and boil the solution with animal fat. Notwithstanding this longstanding knowledge, soap was never widely used for personal hygiene and medical practice in Western culture until the late 19th century. Instead, its use was restricted to cleaning wool, animal hides, and similar materials.

The Greeks and Romans were famous for their elaborate public baths available to nobles, the lower classes and slaves. Soap and washcloths were not part of the routine.

To remove grime and dirt, the Romans would first engage in light exercise to work up a sweat then oil and scrape their skin with a strigil, a hand-held pronged implement. Next, they would take a hot bath followed by a plunge into a cold pool.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the public baths fell into disuse except in Constantinople and the succeeding Islamic and Ottoman empires. Personal cleanliness was not a part of the cultures of the tribes that conquered of Rome.

For the succeeding 1,500 years, the populace of Europe was filthy, stinking, and infested.

Katherine Ashenburg describes this history in often amusing detail in her 2017 book, “The Dirt on Clean, An Unsanitized History.”

In contrast to what was viewed as the lewd and lascivious practices of the Romans, “dirtiness became a uniquely Christian badge of holiness” beginning “in the fourth and fifth centuries.” According to Ashenburg, “the state of being unwashed was largely chosen by hermits, monks and saints” for whom “the only acceptable cleansing was baptism.”  

This religious observance merely buttressed existing norms. Whether peasants or royalty, individuals rarely took baths more than two or three times a year and they never used soap for personal hygiene.

As a result of exposure to the Islamic world, baths and bathhouses did return to parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. The revival was short-lived.

In 1348, Philippe VI of France directed the medical faculty of the University of Paris to investigate the cause of the Black Death. Among other causes, noted by Ashenburg, these learned men identified “hot baths, which had a dangerously moistening and relaxing effect on the body” that “created openings through the skin” permitting “the plague to invade the entire body.”

Medical theory later “advanced” to include “miasmas” or “bad vapors” as a cause of the plague and other maladies. But no one investigated whether the smallest of organisms in the biological world, newly discovered through the invention of the microscope in the mid-1600s, might be responsible.

“Germ theory” was first conceived in the early 19th century. It was ignored by American medicine until 1881 when President James Garfield was shot by an assassin but died from infections caused by his doctor, D. W. Bliss.
In a vain search for the bullet, Bliss repeatedly inserted his unwashed fingers and probes into the open wound over the course of weeks causing a massive sepsis revealed in autopsy. Revising a popular poem, critics concluded, “ignorance is Bliss.”

Accepted surgical practice in America was upended. Antiseptic procedures first introduced by Dr. Joseph Lister in 1865 as surgeon at Glasgow Royal Infirmary and the use of soap to wash patients and hospital facilities promoted by Nurse Florence Nightingale became the new norm.

This commentary will conclude with three amusing anecdotes from Ashenburg.

In the early 1800s, authorities in England began to push for the inclusion of baths in residences and apartments. The initiative met stern resistance.  

London’s Common Council refused to construct a shower bath in the Mayor’s residence because “the want thereof has never been complained of” before.

The master of a Cambridge college likewise refused to construct baths in student dormitories: “There was no need since these young men are with us for only eight weeks at a time.”

By 1956, however, the construction of bathrooms had become so prevalent in many countries that an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan published an ethnological study in the journal of the “American Anthropologist” of one tribe’s peculiar fetish. It was titled, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.”

If you spell the tribe’s name backwards, you’ll see whom he was talking about.  

The next commentary in this series will involve some mathematics. The challenge to non-mathematicians will not be in any way comparable to a strigil on a chalkboard.


Samuel Damren is a retired Detroit lawyer and author of “What Justice Looks Like.”


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