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The Dirty History of Soap

Filthy hands and smelly armpits weren’t always a bad thing.  

Floortje/Getty Images (Soap); iStockPhoto/Getty Images (Background); Lightspring/Shutterstock.com (Bubbles)

    King Louis XIV of France was one of the richest people in history. In the 1600s, he lived in a palace with 700 rooms. He held expensive parties for hundreds of guests. He collected beautiful works of art. 

    He was also, by some accounts, very stinky. Some people say he took only two baths in his entire life. 

    Visitors to the palace may have been afraid to say anything. But they noticed. The Russian ambassador to France liked to keep his distance. The king “stunk like a wild animal,” he wrote.

    It’s hard to imagine a king today having bad body odor. After all, we shower often. We scrub away the stink with soap. We wash our hands before we eat and after we go to the bathroom. 

    But people haven’t always been so eager to soap up. At times in history, King Louis’s bathing habits weren’t strange at all. And the reasons might surprise you.

    King Louis XIV was king of France in the 1600s. He was very rich. He lived in a palace with 700 rooms. He held parties for hundreds of guests. He collected art.

    Also, by some accounts, he was very stinky. He may have taken only two baths in his entire life. 

    People may have been afraid to mention it. But they noticed the stink. The Russian ambassador to France wrote about it. He wrote that the king “stunk like a wild animal.” 

    If the king were alive today, he would probably smell fine. These days, we shower often. We wash our hands. We take away the stink with soap.

    But people haven’t always wanted to soap up. In the past, King Louis’s bathing habits weren’t so strange. The reasons might surprise you.

    King Louis XIV of France was one of the richest people in history. In the 1600s, he lived in a palace with 700 rooms. He held expensive parties for hundreds of guests, and he collected beautiful works of art. 

    He was also, by some accounts, extremely stinky. Some people claim he took only two baths in his entire life. 

    Palace visitors might have been afraid to say anything, but they noticed. The Russian ambassador to France preferred to keep his distance. The king “stunk like a wild animal,” he wrote.

    It’s difficult to imagine a king today having serious body odor. After all, we shower often, scrubbing away the stink with soap. And we wash our hands before eating and after going to the bathroom. 

    But people haven’t always been so eager to soap up. At times in history, King Louis’s bathing habits wouldn’t have seemed unusual at all. And you might find the reasons surprising.

 Photo Josse/Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

Stinky King
King Louis XIV supposedly took only two baths in his whole life.

Itchy Goop

    Let’s start with soap. It’s been around for almost 5,000 years. But for most of that time, it wasn’t the foamy, sweet-smelling stuff we take into the shower with us today. It was made by boiling animal fat and ashes together. The result was greasy and lumpy. It made skin itchy. But it broke up dirt so it could be washed away.

    In ancient times, people used this goop on pretty much everything except their bodies. They scrubbed floors with it. They washed clothes with it. They used it to style their hair. 

    So how did people keep clean if they didn’t use soap? Bathers in Japan soaked in rice water. Many Indigenous peoples in the Americas made cleansers out of crushed-up plants. 

    The ancient Greeks and Romans coated their sweaty bodies with oil and sand. Then they scraped everything off with a metal tool. Famous athletes in ancient Rome sometimes saved the grimy stuff they scraped off. They put it in jars and sold it to their fans.

    Soap has been around for almost 5,000 years. For most of that time, it was made by boiling animal fat and ashes together. The soap was greasy and lumpy. It made skin itchy. But it broke up dirt. Then the dirt could be washed away with water.

    In ancient times, people used this goop on most things. They scrubbed floors with it. They washed clothes with it. They used it to style their hair. But they did not wash their bodies with it.

    So how did people keep clean without soap? In Japan, people soaked in rice water. In the Americas, many Indigenous peoples made cleansers out of crushed-up plants. 

    The ancient Greeks and Romans put oil and sand on their sweaty bodies. Then they scraped it all off with a metal tool. Famous athletes in ancient Rome sometimes put what they scraped off in jars. They sold it to their fans.

    Let’s start with soap. It’s been around for almost 5,000 years—but for most of that time, it wasn’t the foamy, sweet-smelling stuff we take into the shower with us today. Early soaps were made by boiling animal fat and ashes together. The result was greasy and lumpy, and it made skin itchy. But it broke up dirt so it could be washed away.

    In ancient times, people used this goop on pretty much everything except their bodies. They scrubbed floors with it, washed clothes with it, and used it to style their hair. 

    Without soap, how did people keep themselves clean? Bathers in Japan soaked in rice water. Many Indigenous peoples in the Americas made cleansers out of crushed-up plants. 

    The ancient Greeks and Romans coated their sweaty bodies with oil and sand and then scraped everything off with a metal tool. Famous athletes in ancient Rome sometimes saved the grimy stuff they scraped off, then they put it in jars and sold it to their fans.

Smelly = Safe

    Washing with soap eventually became more common—at least for rich Europeans. Soap makers figured out how to make sweet-smelling bar soaps. Wealthy women used them on their face and hands so they would smell nice. Most regular people couldn’t afford to do the same.

    But money wasn’t the only reason to avoid bathing. Many people thought getting clean could make you sick. In fact, they believed it might even kill you.

    From the 1300s through the 1600s, a series of terrible diseases swept through Europe. The worst outbreak was called the Black Plague. It killed one out of every three Europeans. But no one had any idea what caused it. 

    One idea was that poisons got into the body through pores, the tiny openings in skin. People thought warm water opened the pores and let disease in. Dirt, on the other hand, kept sickness out. 

    Stinky King Louis, in other words, probably thought he was keeping himself healthy.

    Over time, washing with soap became more common—at least for rich Europeans. Soap makers figured out how to make bars of soap that smelled sweet. Rich women used them to smell nice. But most people did not have the money to buy those soaps.

    Money wasn’t the only reason people did not bathe. Many people thought getting clean could make you sick. They believed it might even kill you.

    From the 1300s through the 1600s, a series of diseases swept through Europe. The worst outbreak was called the Black Plague. It killed one out of every three Europeans. No one knew what caused it. 

    One idea was that poisons got into the body through pores. Pores are the tiny openings in skin. People thought warm water opened the pores. Then disease could get in. They thought dirt kept sickness out. 

    Stinky King Louis probably thought he was keeping himself healthy.

    Eventually, washing with soap became more common—at least for rich Europeans. Soap makers figured out how to make sweet-smelling bar soaps. To smell nice, wealthy women used these soaps on their face and hands. However, most regular people couldn’t afford to do the same.

    And money wasn’t the only reason people avoided bathing. Many people thought that washing up could make you sick—and that it might even kill you.

    From the 1300s through the 1600s, a series of terrible diseases swept through Europe. The worst outbreak, called the Black Plague, killed one out of every three Europeans. But no one had any idea what caused it. 

    One theory was that poisons entered the body through pores, the tiny openings in skin. People thought warm water opened the pores and allowed diseases to get in. Dirt, in contrast, kept sickness out. 

    In other words, stinky King Louis probably believed he was keeping himself healthy.

Invisible Enemies

Michael Kraus/Shutterstock.com 

    In the late 1800s, medical science gave soap a boost. Scientists discovered that many diseases are caused by tiny living things called germs. Germs are too small to see. But they are everywhere—on the streets, in houses, and all over your body. Most germs are harmless. But some can be dangerous.

    At the time, there were no medicines to fight these invisible enemies. The only defense people had was soap. Soap lifted germs off skin so they could be rinsed away.  Bathing, it turned out, didn’t make you sick. It helped keep you healthy.

    Before long, washing up was a part of our daily life. In the 1930s, a survey asked Americans what things they couldn’t live without. Soap was in the top three (along with bread and butter).

    As for King Louis, he lived to be 77. That was old for the time. But thanks to modern science, we know it had nothing to do with the stink.  

    In the late 1800s, scientists discovered that many diseases are caused by germs. Germs are tiny living things. They are too small to see. But these invisible enemies are everywhere. They are on the streets, in houses, and all over your body. Most germs are harmless. But some can be dangerous.

    At the time, there were no medicines to fight germs. But soap lifted germs off skin so they could be rinsed away. Science made it clear that bathing didn’t make you sick. It helped keep you healthy.

    Soon, soap was a part of our daily life. In the 1930s, a survey asked Americans what they couldn’t live without. Soap was in the top three (along with bread and butter).

    As for King Louis, he lived to be 77. That was old for the time. Thanks to modern science, we know it wasn’t because of the stink.

    In the late 1800s, medical science gave soap a boost. Scientists discovered that many diseases are caused by tiny living things called germs. Germs are too small to see, but they are everywhere—on the streets, in houses, and all over your body. Most germs are harmless, but some can be dangerous.

    At the time, there were no medicines to fight these invisible enemies. The only defense people had was soap, which lifted germs off skin so they could be rinsed away. It turned out that, far from making you sick, bathing actually helped keep you healthy.

    Before long, washing ourselves with soap had become a part of our daily life. In the 1930s, a survey asked Americans what things they couldn’t live without. Soap was in the top three (along with bread and butter).

    As for King Louis, he lived to be 77. That was old for the time. But we know his long life had nothing to do with the stink—thanks to modern science! 

Lending a Clean Hand

How we fought a deadly disease with a zillion gallons of goopy gel

Courtesy of family 

Clean Hero 
Jayden Perez gave away hand sanitizer.

Shutterstock.com

    In 2020, the coronavirus started to spread across America. Health experts warned people to fight the virus by keeping their hands clean. Soon, one item became almost impossible to find: hand sanitizer.

    Sanitizer shelves at pharmacies were completely empty. Small bottles that usually cost $2 were being sold online for $80. Hospitals had to lock up their supply so no one would steal it.

    In New Jersey, 11-year-old Jayden Perez had a solution. He and his mom found 1,500 sanitizer sprays online. They bought the sprays and gave them away—to emergency workers, to the library, to schools in the area.

    “It’s times like this that we have to come together,” Jayden said.

    In 2020, the coronavirus started to spread across America. Health experts told people to keep their hands clean to help fight the virus. Soon, hand sanitizer was very hard to find.

    At stores, sanitizer shelves were empty. Hospitals locked up their supplies so no one would steal them.

    In New Jersey, 11-year-old Jayden Perez had a solution. He and his mom found 1,500 sanitizer sprays online. They bought the sprays. Then they gave them to emergency workers, to the library, and to nearby schools—for free.

    “It’s times like this that we have to come together,” Jayden said.

    In 2020, the coronavirus started to spread across America. Health experts advised that one way to help fight the virus was to keep your hands clean. Before long, one item became almost impossible to find: hand sanitizer.

    Sanitizer shelves at pharmacies were completely empty, and small bottles that usually cost $2 were being sold online for $80. Hospitals had to lock up their supply so no one would steal it.

    In New Jersey, 11-year-old Jayden Perez had a solution. He and his mom found 1,500 sanitizer sprays online. They bought the sprays and donated them—to emergency workers, to the library, and to schools in the area.

    “It’s times like this that we have to come together,” Jayden explained.

How It Works

    Soap is thousands of years old. But hand sanitizer has been around for only about 30 years. At first, it was sold mainly to doctors and nurses. They used it to clean their hands when they weren’t near a sink. Now, people use it to wash up wherever they can’t rinse—in the car, on the soccer field, at the beach.

    Hand sanitizers are made with alcohol, which kills germs. But it doesn’t remove them completely from your skin. For that reason, experts say you should wash your hands with soap and water whenever you can.

    Today, most Americans have gotten the Covid-19 vaccine. People are less worried about the virus. But it’s still a good idea to keep your hands clean. And that has become a lot easier to do. 

    Last year, hand sanitizer was almost impossible to find—unless you knew someone like Jayden. Now, there’s so much of it that some stores are giving it away. 

    Soap is thousands of years old. But hand sanitizer has been around for only about 30 years. At first, it was sold mainly to doctors and nurses. They used it to clean their hands when they weren’t near a sink. Now people use it to wash up in the car, on the soccer field, and at the beach.

    Hand sanitizer is made with alcohol. It kills germs. But it doesn’t remove the germs completely from your skin. So experts say you should wash with soap and water whenever you can.

    Today, most Americans have gotten the Covid-19 vaccine. People are less worried about the virus. But it’s still a good idea to keep your hands clean. And that has become much easier to do. 

    Last year, hand sanitizer was almost impossible to find. These days, there’s a lot of it. Some stores are even giving
it away.

    Soap is thousands of years old, but hand sanitizer has been around for only about 30 years. At first, it was sold mainly to doctors and nurses, who used it to clean their hands when they weren’t near a sink. Now people use it to wash up in the car, on the soccer field, at the beach—and anywhere else where they can’t rinse.

    Hand sanitizers are made with alcohol, which kills germs but doesn’t remove them completely from your skin. For that reason, experts advise washing with soap and water whenever possible.

    Today, most Americans have gotten the Covid-19 vaccine. As a result, people are less worried about the virus, but it’s still a good idea to keep your hands clean. And that has become much easier to do. 

    Last year, hand sanitizer was practically impossible to find, unless you knew someone like Jayden. Now the supply is so great that some stores are actually giving it away.

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