Why didn't some peoples invent soap?

Why didn’t some cultures invent soap? It seems like a very elemental thing since most peoples have dealt with both ashes and fat and the chance that over centuries someone would have mixed the leachate of ashes with fat and observed that the product plus water would lather and could be used for cleaning. Which cultures had soap and which didn’t? I had heard that the Romans, of all people, had no soap. Is this true?

I saw a show on PBS a while back about recreating a Roman bathhouse. They made the point that the Romans used a device called a STYGIL ( I think that’s spelled correctly) to scrape off the sweat and dirt. No soap.

Peoples who didn’t perform medical surgery had no need for soap. It doesn’t serve much of another purpose.

(although, yes I use it. “When in Rome…”)

A better question is: Now that soap has been invented, why don’t some people use it?

I work with some kickin’ people at work. Hell, I almost puked the other day when some stinkin’ ass dude walked by.

Here’s how to bathe (in this order):



3)Hi Opal



Aah… that’s better.

The ancient Greeks used the strigil. So did other cultures. Several years ago there was a guy selling them at one of the crafts fairs in Salem, MA.

I’ll have to check direct sources, but in his classic time-travel novel “Lest Darkness Fall”, L. Sprague de Camp has his hero, Martin Padway, recoil in horror from Roman soap that has been poorly made, with the fat and lye incompletely reacted. This is a work of fiction, I grant, but de Camp was very meticulous about getting his historical facts straight.
Other people may not have invented soap, but had soap substitutes. IIRC, Bernal Diaz reported that the Aztecs used the sap of a plant in the same fashion as soap.

Well, some people just smell no matter what they do. For the rest, the body’s own natural cleaning cycle takes over after a few weeks of not bathing and the smell, for the most part, goes away.

(I mean, no one bathes their dog every day, right?)

I’m pretty sure the Romans knew of soap, but I think it was used for some medicinal purpose, not for cleaning. I’m at work, so I can’t check any of my books.

Apparently a bath with just water, plus scraping all over with the strigil, then rinsing was pretty effective.


There’s also an issue of the availablity of fats. I would think that a lot of cultures, esp. those who aren’t the wealthiest and are in need of the calories, would rather EAT said fat than turn it into soap.

I recall reading an article about the Beja in the Sudan. They regard bathing as a waste of water, so they just go into a tentlike structure and get really hot and sweat and clean themselves off.

Seems using soap would require a lot of water for rinsing and that is wasteful.

Of course, this raises the Tyler Durden statements from Fight Club about Soap and its history (in a nutshell, soap from the ashes and fat of humans produced the first usable soap)

Truth? Not?

PS Don’t talk about Fight Club

I dunno about that. I’ve smelled some pretty rank homeless people. I suppose dirty clothes might contribute, but still.