How religious worship led to the discovery of soap

Soap hasn't always appeared as nice little bars in the supermarket. In fact, the discovery of soap is a mess! Historians say it started thousands of years ago. Ancient Roman religious practices included animal sacrifices performed on mountaintops. After the sacrifice, the animal was burned. Burnt animal fat, wood ashes, and rainwater would flow down the mountain and combine with the claylike soil of the Tiber River.

When these ingredients reacted together, it was thought that a crude soap formed. Legend has it this occurred first on Mt. Sapo. Rearrange the letters, and it spells 'soap.'

Soapmaking has undergone many changes since then, but the basic ingredients in true soap are still fats and oils combined with a caustic substance, like lye. People had to make their own soap at home until the late 1700s. In 1791, French chemist Nicolas Leblanc made everyone's life easier by developing a commercial soapmaking process.

People have always wanted to keep their teeth clean, too. The earliest toothbrushes, like those in ancient Rome, were nothing more than sticks whose end was pounded flat. By the Middle Ages, toothbrushes were being dipped into various dry, cleaning powders. Ingredients included wood ash, ground nut shells, dried fruits and flowers, and ground talc (a soft stone). Much later, tooth powders contained soap.

In 1850, toothpaste history was made. Washington Wentworth Sheffield, a chemist and dental surgeon in New London, Conn., created the first cream toothpaste sold in a metal squeeze tube. Toothpaste in a tube was a popular novelty and more sanitary than dipping your toothbrush in what was sometimes a shared bowl of tooth powder.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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