History of Soap Making and what makes our Kūmarahou wash special
The history of soap goes back thousands of years with the earliest record of soap making around 2800 BC. The ancient Babylonians made a basic soap from fats boiled with wood ashes & it was used primarily for cleaning wool & cotton used to make garments & medicinally for skin conditions rather than bathing. The famous ancient city of Babylon whose ruins are found about 100 kilometres south of Bagdad in present day Iraq grew from a small port town on the banks of the Euphrates river to one of the largest cities in the ancient world.
Around 1550 BC, the Ebers papyrus records the ancient Egyptians producing a type of soap by combining animal & vegetable oils with alkaline salts.The Phoenicians used goat tallow which is rendered fat, mixed with wood ashes to make soap around 600 BC and soap was widely used by the Romans.
The Celts named it saipo which is one possible origin of the word soap while another possible origin was after Mt Sapo in Rome or sapo a type of clay the Romans used to clean themselves with.
In Ancient Rome, legend has it that a group of women discovered soap by washing their kitchen implements in the River Tiber at the base of Mt Sapo where animal sacrifices were made to the Roman Gods. The run-off down the hill from the animal fats mixed with wood ash, combined with the river-water, produced a mixture which washed grease & dirt away.
For thousands of years the basics of soap making remained largely the same using natural ingredients, fats and oils from animals and plants to make soap.
It was only in the last few hundred years that soap for personal hygiene caught on & last century following WW1 when fats and oils became in short supply that synthetically based soaps were developed, commercially produced and marketed to the masses.
However, there remains a strong and growing market preferring naturally based soaps, free of the petro-chemical additives usually found in large scale commercially produced soaps which can strip the skin of natural oils & contribute to irritating skin conditions. Most mass produced commercially branded soaps are actually synthetic detergents.
As a natural alternative to animal fats, many plants have active compounds called saponins (derived from the word sapo) which have a foaming emulsifying action.They have lipophilic and hydrophilic traits, which means they produce foam on contact with oils and water, allowing them to act as surfactants, or natural detergents.
Surfactants break the surface tension of water, lifting grime (oils, fats) from the skin in a solvent of water which can be washed off. Plants with these compounds are found in many places around the world.
In New Zealand, we are fortunate to have our native kūmarahou bush which contains high levels of natural saponins which act as powerful surfactants & is the basis for our soft natural wonderfully healing Aotea Kumarahou soap.
The kumarahou bush has masses of attractive yellow flowers in late spring. When the flowers are mashed up and mixed with water, they produce a natural foamy soapy lather.
Kūmarahou was referred to in ‘the old days’ as gum digger’s soap because bushmen found a wonderfully effective way to clean the sticky gum, oil and dirt from their hands was to wash their hands in a stream while rubbing their hands with a handful of kūmarahou flowers. The action of the surfactant would gently lift the gum & dirt off their skin without having to resort to harsh abrasion. They learnt this from local Māori who had used the Kūmarahou plant for centuries as a totally natural gentle cleanser and in traditional Rongoā as a topical dermal wash for healing skin inflammations & infections, and as a tonic for such things as respiratory complaints, rheumatism and gout.
In other parts of the world Soapberry is a common name given to a family of about 12 species of shrubs and trees native to the tropical and subtropical parts of Asia, the Americas & some Pacific islands. The fruits or berries these plants produce also contain the saponin compounds and have been used for thousands of years as a soap. Today soap berries are still preferred by some people as a gentle natural soap or laundry detergent, & alternative to commercially manufactured soaps containing dyes, scents & chemical additives.
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