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article number 417
article date 01-29-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
How We Manufactured Soap, 1873
by Horace Greeley, et al.

From the 1873 book, The Great Industries of the United States.

THE word “soap” is found in two places in our “authorized version” of the Bible; namely, Jeremiah ii. 22, and Malachi iii. 2. The exact meaning of the Hebrew word, however, is not known, and the best authorities suppose that what is meant by it was, probably, the ashes of the glass-wort, a plant common in the dry parts of the East, and which may be used as a substitute for soap. Soap itself the Jews at that time had not.

There is no reason, Sir J. G. Wilkinson says, for believing that the ancient Egyptians, from whom the Jews derived so much of their civilization, knew or used it. Nitre, or a lye from the ashes of glass-wort and similar plants, or the juice of saponaceous plants, was used instead.

So was fuller’s earth, and so was mere washing in water, accompanied by rubbing or stamping.

Soap, as we now know it, appears to have been a barbarous rather than a civilized invention, and to have been discovered by the Gauls or Germans, or both, before the Christian Era. Soft soap was apparently made before hard soap, as a potash lye from the ashes of trees was at first used, and not soda.

From these barbarians the Romans learned to make it, and from the Romans, the Greeks, — an order of introduction the reverse of that which commonly prevails.

Some kind of soap — probably a pretty caustic kind of soft soap — was used by the Roman ladies to dye their hair red or yellow. Soap was found in one of the houses of Pompeii (destroyed A. D. 79); so that it was pretty quickly and generally adopted by the most civilized people of ancient times after they became acquainted with it.

No records appear to be known of the continuance of the manufacture of soap during the first seven centuries of the Christian Era, though it is extremely probable that it was constantly made. There is, however, good authority to prove the existence of soap manufactories in Italy and Spain in the eighth century.

About the twelfth century the business was established at Marseilles, that part of France affording olive oil and soda, two excellent materials, and soap has been made there ever since.

Within two centuries afterwards the business was begun in England, and Bristol furnished most of that country with it for a long time, at a cost of one penny a pound. In 1524 the first was made in London.

It is a curious fact, that although we know very well what soap is used for, and what it does, we do not know how it does it.

The usual statement made on the subject is this: Soap, consisting of fat and alkali, removes grease or other dirt by surrendering, when dissolved in water, part of its alkali, which thereupon proceeds to combine with the grease or dirt, forming a new material, or additional portion of soapy matter, which water will remove.

But if this were the case, the “part of the alkali” all alone would do the business. We do not send a hundred men to bring a parcel, of whom one brings it, after all.

Soap is a chemical compound, and is, chemically speaking, a “salt,” resulting from the combination of an acid with an alkali. The acid is a “fatty acid,” namely, stearic, margaric, oleic, etc.; the alkali is almost universally either soda, which makes hard soap, or potash, which makes soft soap. And soap-making is simply conducting this combination of the acid and alkali.

A few figures will show how important the soap business is. At Marseilles alone not less than one hundred and thirty-five millions of pounds of soap are made each year.


In 1860 more than six million three hundred thousand dollars were invested in soap and candle factories in the United States, turning out about eighteen and a half millions of dollars’ worth annually of the manufactured articles, without including in this total value a very great quantity of homemade soft soap. In 1852 there were made in only eighty towns of Great Britain (not including Ireland) more than one hundred and five millions of pounds of soap.

Until the present century, soap had always been made, to use a common expression, by “rule of thumb”; that is, according to the practice which had grown up in one or another locality.

The first important scientific epoch in the history of the business was the introduction of a mode of making artificial soda in the beginning of this century by Leblane, who thus supplied to Marseilles the want caused by the war with Spain, which cut off the usual importations of barilla.

Not long afterwards the celebrated French chemist Chevreul made a series of investigations into oils and fats, being the second important scientific epoch in the history of soap, and which resulted in placing the business of making both soap and candles on a really scientific basis.

The best and clearest account of the process of soap-making will e given by following it through the works of a large and scientifically, as well as successfully, conducted factory.

For the purpose of accomplishing this object, the old established firm of Enoch Morgan’s Sons, of New York City, was visited, and the materials followed from the pan to the package, with constant explanations from one of the members of the firm, himself a practical chemist and a practical manufacturer.

For the present purpose, it may be supposed that the article to be made is the common yellow or bar soap; and what is sought is neither a strictly scientific statement, nor a fulness of information that would enable the reader to build and run a soap-factory for himself, but a plain and readable account of the operations.

Filling the central part of the first floor of the factory of Enoch Morgan’s Sons, near the foot of Bank Street, in New York, is a range of four or five immense iron structures called pans. These extend from the floor through the ceiling, and breast high into the room above. They are twelve or fifteen feet wide and of about the same depth, and will hold, if filled to the brim, about one hundred thousand pounds each, or, some eleven or twelve thousand gallons.

Giant pans for soap making extend from central part of the first floor into the floor above.

The first thing to do is to prepare some lye; that is, a solution of caustic soda in water. This is done by the action of fresh-slacked lime, which, on being mixed with carbonate of soda in water, seizes the carbonic acid, becomes a carbonate of lime, and leaves the soda in its caustic state dissolved in the water. Several different portions of this lye are prepared, varying in strength.

Next comes “pasting,” which is the first union of the materials into a soap-like form. It is accomplished by repeatedly and slowly boiling refined white tallow, first with the weakest and then with stronger and stronger lyes.

At each boiling, a successive portion of the tallow divides into its constituents of oleic and stearic acids and glycerine. The former, which are “fatty acids,” combine with the soda from the lye, and the glycerine drains out and mixes into the water of the lye.

After each boiling the pan is allowed to settle; the light soap material rises to the top, and the heavy “spent lye” and glycerine sink to the bottom, and are drawn off, when more lye is added and the process repeated.

“Pasting” is complete when the grease is thoroughly “killed”; that is, when soda enough has united with the stearine to separate all the glycerine; which of course makes an end of the grease, and puts soap in its place. The new material consists of little yellowish grains (the soap) floating on the liquid of the “spent lye.”

After pasting is complete, a third or fourth as much resin as there was tallow is added in coarse powder, and stirred in. The effect of the resin is to improve the yellow color of the soap, to make it more uniform in texture, and softer and easier of solution in water.

The next process is to add an excess of solution of caustic soda over what is necessary to thoroughly saponify the grease and resin. After settling, this excess is run off, and the soap is now ready for finishing.

Third floor: excess of solution of caustic soda.

This finishing is done by thinning down the soap by heat and adding water to it until the heavy impurities sink to the bottom, while the light ones rise to the top. Upon once more settling the pan, the soap collects in the upper part of it, not now in the grained state of the “paste,” but in a clear, uniform, semi-transparent molasses-like fluid.

On the top floats a scum a few inches thick, which the workmen call the “fob”; it is yellow and light of structure, with foam-white scales and light impurities about it.

Down below, in the bottom of the pan, is the heavy sullen mass of spent lye, and next above it a layer of imperfect soap, containing a certain portion of impurities, and which is called by the workman the “nigger.” The word appears to be quite an old one, and to be a true derivative from the Latin niger, black, as the stuff itself is dark colored.

As soon as the soap is cool enough, and before it is too cool, it is ladled out of the pan into “frames.” These are in the form of a large deep bureau-drawer set up edgeways, and each will hold about twelve hundred pounds of soap. They are open, however, at the top, corresponding with what would be the front of the drawer.

They were formerly made by laying square wooden frames one above the other, somewhat as a log-cabin is built, but are at present usually of iron, which cools much faster.

When cool, the iron frame is removed, and the great lump of soap—also called a frame—is left standing naked all by itself. While still soft and helpless it is slit horizontally into slabs; these are cut perpendicularly into bars, and these bars, whose length represents the thickness of the frame, are the well known “bar soap.

Fourth Floor: slabs cut into bars of soap.

Swiftly the stamp of “Enoch Morgan’s Sons” is spatted upon the top of the upper layer of bars; they are laid into a box; spat, spat, spat, goes the stamp again, and the next layer is packed; and in a few minutes the whole twelve hundred pounds arc boxed, nailed, labelled, and ready for shipment.

It must not be supposed that this is the only soap made by the firm, by any means. The number of kinds and styles is very considerable, and, from the great number of different practicable combinations of materials and variations of process, can be increased almost without limit.

Thus, the house of Enoch Morgan’s Sons not only manufactures large quantities of the yellow or bar soap, which we have been following through the process of its manufacture, but regularly supplies other kinds.

For instance may be mentioned the “mottled soap,” usually termed Castile soap, probably from having been first made in Spain, where the soap business was very ancient.

This mottling is accomplished by keeping the soap thick, so that the “nigger” cannot fall down through it to the bottom, but has to gather into streaks and veins throughout its substance, the purer and whiter soap doing the same. If the coloring matter thus supplied is not sufficient, a proper quantity of oxide of iron is added.

This mottled soap is a harder and better article than the resin soap, and dissolves more slowly in water.

Again, the firm makes a soap with cocoa oil, which is hard, light, and will wash with salt water. This is well known as “salt-water soap,” or “marine soap.” It is unnecessary to enumerate further.

Many different materials are used in making soaps, and many modifications of the process above described are employed, — some cold, some hot, some under pressure, etc.; but they all come under the one brief statement of a chemical union of caustic alkali with the acid part of a fat or oil.

Tallow, suet, butter, spermaceti, whale oil, fish oil, goose-grease, horse-fat, and many more, have all been used. Even human fat has been made into soap, which, Professor Dussause says, “ dries quickly, and turns yellow.”

An equal or greater number of vegetable oils have been tried, including olive oil, linseed oil, nut oil, poppy-seed oil, castor oil, sunflower-seed oil, Cotton-seed oil, cocoa and palm oils, etc., and quite a number of these different fats and oils have not only been manufactured experimentally, but are regularly used in the business.

Even turpentine, wax, and resin, with alkalies, will form soaps, though not very good ones.

Among the numerous improvements that have been devised in soap-making have been a number of plans for making soaps from petroleum.

The blunder of expecting a soap from petroleum because it is greasy is a good deal like expecting that alcohol will put out a fire because it is a fluid. That which combines with the alkali must be an acid; to be such an acid, it must have oxygen in it. Now there is no oxygen in petroleum, and therefore it has not in it what can make soap.

The variety of alkalies available for soap-making is not so great as that of oils, and it can hardly be said that any besides soda and potash are commercially used in the business. There exists a process for using, instead of soda, an “aluminate of soda,” consisting of nearly equal quantities of alumina and soda, which is claimed to give a soap of much greater cleansing power than soda alone.

Ammonia has been employed as the alkali of a soap for medical use. Lime or baryta, being alkaline earths, will make soap. Some metallic oxides will do so; and a soap made by boiling olive oil with oxide of lead is known as “lead soap,” and is used in medicine, as is a so-called “arsenical soap.”

A certain number of other matters are used like the alumina just mentioned as third ingredients in soap, besides coloring matters and scents. Adulterations of many kinds have been practised, not merely by mixing cheap oils with costly ones, and the like, but by adding mashed potatoes, or starch, or fine clay, or marble dust, or sulphate of baryta, to tallow, or to the soap itself.


Several materials have, however, been avowedly and openly mixed with soaps as improvements. The use of resin has been described. Silex, either as sand or in the form of “water-glass,” or soluble glass (silicate of soda), is one of the most common; and some of the soaps made in this way are extremely efficient and useful.

Modified soaps for various special purposes are made by mixing lime water, dissolved alum, etc., with soap already made.

One of the best known of all these modifications of soap is that known as “Sapolio,” invented and introduced by the firm of Enoch Morgan’s Sons, already referred to. This is a refined hard white soap, with which, at a certain stage in the process, a very finely divided powder is incorporated, the result being a material possessed of an extraordinary union of chemical and mechanical cleansing powers.

It is intended not so much for purifying cloths as for cleaning paint, woodwork, brass, copper, windows, statuary, machinery, oilcloth, polishing bright surfaces, etc., and its nature is such as to require a particular mode of application; but if the printed directions are complied with it has extraordinary efficacy.

It has, however, been used with much success for removing grease-spots from clothes, etc., — a quality which was brought before the public once, and discovered twice, by a sort of accident.

When the Sapolio was first introduced, and all the force of the house of Enoch Morgan’s Sons had their hands and heads full to overflowing with making it and talking of its virtues, one of their employees, on going home one evening, found his wife at her wits’-end over a desperate grease-spot on the clothes of her son.

“Pshaw!” exclaimed the father, half vexed and half joking, and recurring to what had been praised in his hearing all day as equal to almost everything, from purifying an evil conscience down to scouring paint,—”pshaw! Try Sapolio!” The mother promptly did so, and the Sapolio promptly took out the grease.

This was reported at head-quarters next day, but not much notice was taken of it until, at a subsequent period, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher published in his newspaper a strongly worded commendation of the Sapolio for the very same good quality, which, it seems, he had discovered very much in the same way.

“You might go and ask Beecher for a recommendation till the day of judgment, you know, and not get it,” observed the gentleman who told this story; “ and so we think that recommendation means something.”

Like many of the soundest firms in New York, the house of Enoch Morgan’s Sons has quite a history. It was founded by the maternal grandfather of the present partners, Mr. D. R. Williams, about sixty years ago, at the same site now occupied by their down-town store, No. 211 Washington Street.

The business has thus descended directly and prosperously to the third generation of hereditary owners, and seems likely to stand as much longer.

In the days of its origin, soap and candles were commonly manufactured at the same establishment, the fats used being applicable for either purpose.

The making of candles was kept up until some ten or fifteen years ago, when the use of those ancient artificial lights had become so diminished, in consequence of the introduction of gas, burning-fluid, kerosene, etc., that it was given up, and the only work done at present by the firm besides soap-making is the preparation by wholesale of a few chemicals, where the processes be so carried on as to combine economically with the soap processes.

All operations: Soap Manufactory of Enoch Morgan’s Sons (Inside View.) Note coal furnaces in basement.
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