The Savon de Marseille is inspired by a soap that has existed for thousands of years in Syria and is one of the essential specialties of the south of France.
Soap recipes on papyri
The origins of soap go back to the Egyptians. They described soap recipes on their famous papyri. In Europe, the Gauls were apparently the first to intentionally make soap from goat tallow and potash from beech ashes. But the concept of soap was already present 2000 BC on clay tablets written in Sumerian which mentioned the use of a kind of “soap paste” to prepare wool before dyeing in Mesopotamia. The first soaps certainly date back to the Egyptians and the invention of hard soap is attributed to the Gauls. However, it is in the Mediterranean basin that the manufacture of soap will very quickly develop. Indeed, Syria sees the birth of the famous Aleppo soap composed of olive oil and bay laurel oil, salt, soda and water. During the Crusades, Aleppo soap, the ancestor of Marseille soap, arrived on the Marseille coast: Marseille soap was born.
The first soap factories first appeared in Toulon
It was from the 12th century that the first soap factories first appeared in Toulon and then in Marseille. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the industry developed and became organized thanks in particular to the Edict of Colbert which, in 1688, regulated the manufacture of Marseille soap and protected the Marseille soap factories to the detriment of the Toulonnaises. Colbert’s edict also dealt with the raw materials to be used. It highlights local raw materials : pure olive oil from Provence as well as salt and soda directly from the Camargue. Colbert strictly prohibits the use of tallow (animal fat). Indeed, the use of tallow compromises the quality of the soap and damages the laundry. However, Marseille soap was mainly used by professional laundresses and washerwomen for the laundry. With the first colonies, and the worrying scarcity of olive oil, soap factories turned to trade in other oils, in particular palm oil and coconut oil. These oils produce a white or beige colored Marseille soap. This soap, of better quality, allows the washing of fragile fabrics.
A hundred soap factories in Marseille
Then came the golden age of Savon de Marseille. From the middle of the 19th century until the Second World War, Marseille soap factories multiplied. There are more than a hundred soap factories in Marseille. They are powerful and often owned by large Marseille families. About 30% of the population worked directly or indirectly through this industry. Marseille soap, recognized internationally for its effectiveness, is exported all over the world and in particular to our colonies. It was in 1906 that the term « Extra pure 72% oils » was defined, which served as a guarantee of quality. Indeed, this percentage was necessary to avoid fraud where the proportion of water could reach 50% of the soap. With this level of water, the soap lost half its weight in a few uses.
The decline of savon de Marseille
After the Second World War, the democratization of the washing machine and the arrival of washing powders will sound the decline of Marseille soap. The large soap factories bought out the smaller ones, then were in turn bought out by large international groups. The soap factory diversified in the 1930s by manufacturing soap powders (ancestor of washing powders). Thanks to this activity, she will succeed in passing this milestone. Until 1986, the Fer à Cheval soap factory even produced Le Chat washing powder.
Marseille soap is fully in line with new consumer trends
Today, consumers are refocusing on so-called natural products with few ingredients as well as ingredients of natural origin. It is true that Marseille soap is fully in line with new consumer trends such as zero waste where people are interested in consuming better and consuming less.