The History of Olive Oil Soap


Back in the days before soap was invented, it is said that when the ancient Egyptians wanted to clean themselves, they spread olive oil on their skin. The olive oil stuck to the dirt, and could then be scraped away. Other civilisations in Mesopotamia learned to put soda ash in olive oil and this became the first soap.

Olive oil has been used in soap making for thousands of years. Olive oil, like all fats and oils, is transformed into soap by adding lye (soda ash is very similar to lye). Over the centuries, the process of making soap from olive oil was improved, different oils were mixed with olive oil, and additives – from algae to minerals – were utilised.

An olive oil soap factory was established in Marseilles in the 6th century, and eventually other soap factories followed in Genoa, Lisbon and Constantinople (later Istanbul). The quality of such soaps was not consistent; it was only in 1792 that the purity and quality of the soap was stabilised, using a process developed by a French chemist.

As a result of this discovery, the government of France issued an edict on “Savon de Marseille” (Marseilles soap), ordering that all soap should conform to this manufacturing process. Only soap made in this manner would earn a certification of purity.

Marseilles soap factories usually tapped the olive production in Provence, France for their manufactures. But due to disastrous olive harvests in France at the end of the 17th century, French merchants came to Crete seeking olive oil to supply the soap factories of Marseilles. At this time, the Ottoman Empire had already occupied Crete.

During the eighteenth century, the amount of olive oil exported from Crete almost doubled. However, the quality of the olive oil exported was unregulated, and for much of the 18th and 19th centuries European observers remarked that the quality of the olive oil coming out of Crete was suitable only for soap manufacture. The quantity and quality of Cretan olive oil would have been improved by better refining techniques and more efficient Ottoman administration, but since the market for the oil was largely the soap factories anyway, there was no economic impetus for improvement and even crude manufacturing techniques were considered adequate.

Though soap made from olive oil was known as Marseilles soap, for the better part of two centuries a large section of the olive oil soap industry depended on olive oil from Crete.

At the same time, soap making became an important industry in Crete, Mytilene and Volos in the 18th and 19th centuries, with major exports of soap from these regions of Greece.

There were 45 soap factories in Crete, using 2,200,000 okes (a unit measuring 1280 gr) of olive oil per year. Large ships of 150-170 tons were built in Sfakia to transport soap to Constantinople, Salonica, Smyrna and Syria.

A visitor to Heraklion, Crete in 1881 writes: “The Heraklion Soap Factory produces excellent scented soap. Linen washed with Heraklion soap is not only cleaner than using any other soap, but also gives off a pleasant scent, even if the soap is not mixed with any perfume…”