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History of Soap Making

Additional Reading

One of various interpretations of the history of soap making has it deriving from the Cree word Kanata, meaning something which is very neat or clean. How true. In 1977 we used half a billion pounds of cleaning products.

The history of soap making was introduced to us by Europeans. A few years ago, hygiene was not as highly regarded as it is today.

History of Soap Making and the American Indian:

Indians had little need for soap. Their clothing, like the Eskimo, was made of animal hides and couldn’t be washed. Simply brushed off or replaced when they became worn. Pressured by pioneers, the Indians wouldn’t take up the European dress because “their woman cannot wash them when they become soiled… therefore they had rather go naked then be lousy.” Actually the reverse occurred and many settlers adopted Indian dress when their European clothes expired.

The history of soap making in several pioneer recollections includes the story of a young girl who undertook to clean her one and only garment made of deerskin. She dipped it into a tub of lye-water, only to see it shrivel before her eyes, forcing her to take tearful refuge in her blankets.

Although Canadian Indians didn’t use soap, bathing was more than for hygiene. With fasting and celibacy, it was a body and soul cleansing experience for them. It prepared the Indians for communion with supernatural beings. It was also used as a ritual before hunting, healing, and initiation. Young Indian babies were bathed frequently in cold water to toughen them. This insured only the fit survived by withstanding this endurance test.

The history of soap making also included using the Indian sweat bath which was surprising to the new Europeans. This ritual had disappeared in Europe before the discovery of America. It survived in Finland known as the sauna. Also common in Africa and the Pacific Islands, many believe it reached its peak in the new world.

Besides being a sanitary and religious method, the sweat bath, accompanied by herbs, was used for diseases. The fumes of wild horsemint or balsam needles scattered on the coals were inhaled for colds. As a relief to sore muscles and rheumatism, witch hazel twigs were steeped in water heated by hot rocks to produce the soothing steam.

As Indians were exposed to traders and settlers, they gradually adopted many of the white man’s habits, among them, soap. In the mid 1800s, among West Coast Indians, a piece of soap of a finger’s thickness was worth four marten pelts. Translated, this was a high price, since a blanket could be had for ten. A sliver of soap was often the coveted prize for schoolyard games in mission settlements.

History of Soap Making & Soap Factory:

In the biography of William Duncan, a lay preacher, soap was an accessory to convert the natives of Fort Simpson on the Northwest Pacific Coast. This zealous Christian persuaded Indians to renounce their rich heritage and relocate in a European style village.

Gone were the medicine men, moccasins, potlatches and totems. The members of the village had to vow to be clean. The Indians renounced their spirit-gods and eagerly embraced the European way of life. Duncan encouraged his charges to plant garden plots and build frame houses. In the late 1800s, together with a forge, carpentry shop, sawmill, and brick kiln, he started a soap factory.

Christians and History of Soap Making:

Christians viewed the body as a temporary vessel for the soul.
Concerning oneself with bodily functions was considered bad for the spirit. As time went on, fundamentalist sects warned the body was a source of evil. This caused an over concern with modesty.
Even disrobing in private was sinful. Bathing was discouraged.

Romans and History of Soap Making:

Romans, along with Jews and Greeks, were the opposite. They held the body in great regard, a gift from the gods. Cleanliness and sanitation began the outgrowth of public toilets and baths.

Archaeologists believe that Egypt’s Queen Nefertiti used facial masks of honey, milk, and flower pollen to cleanse her pores while in her bath went 80 herbs and fruits.

© Copyright Rachael Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

About the Author

Rachael is owner of Making Homemade Soap, her dad is Randy Wilson.


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