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The Marseilles Soap and its origins

By Patricia Connell
24/04/2004

For most French people `Le Savon de Marseille' (Marseilles Soap) is part of their childhood. It is something that was used by their mothers and grandmothers. This is a simple product, which has changed over time and which has been recently rediscovered for its traditional qualities.

It is said that Gallic people used Marseilles Soap both to colour their hair in red and as a lotion against skin disease and spots. At the time, it was a rather liquid paste made of forest ashes and animal fat. Slowly, olive oil started to replace animal fats and because of the soda plant extract, the soap consistency is firmer and the fragrance nicer.

 

Top of the page After the Crusades, soaps made of vegetable extract become more common. From 17th century, Marseilles Soap because better established for two main reasons: first of all, greater importance was given to clothes and appearance and secondly, in 1688 a new decree (according to the Sun King, Louis XIV), regulated the manufacturing process thus ensuring the quality: Only pure olive oils had to be used this excluded any other types of fat.

     
         
  Top of the page Soap usage increased but the French Revolution, soon followed by consecutive wars, slowed its progression. Later, the less scrupulous soap manufacturers did not hesitate to add talcum powder and rubber while some factories close down due to competition from imported soaps. As a result, of some Marseilles Soap was poor quality and it acquired a bad reputation. Housewives stopped using the product altogether.

In 1812, by decree, Marseilles Soap with Olive Oil became a brand in its own right. It was around that time that it was discovered that "by adding another component to the olive oil such as carnation seeds [...] we could obtain a soap which was much more sought after. In fact, it became practically impossible to sell soap made only of olive oil." It was soon be followed by sesame oil, palm, coco and finally groundnut oil. Consequently, manufacturers had to specify which oils, other than olive oil, were used in the manufacturing process as well as their name and the town of origin.

   
         
  Top of the page Although foreign competition grew stronger, Marseilles greatly benefited from the development of a new industrial sector: oil making. It was then in a position to re-conquer the national soap market. In addition, the development of the rail network enabled soaps to be distributed more easily.

The 20th century saw a greater need for hygiene and comfort. Soap became a necessity. It was no longer reserved for domestic needs. It was introduced in the operating theatre and in the industry for the washing of wool. Soap manufacturers merged with Oil manufacturers to open other doors. It was then that a man from Marseilles invented soap powder and distributed it under the `Persil' brand. Although it was far from being an immediate success, the process was copied abroad.
The First World War and the launch of the first washing machines created a demand for a soap, which cleaned well but with low suds. It would soon mean the extinction of the washer ladies and the slow decline of the Marseilles Soap production. To halt the erosion of the Marseilles soap market, an American group, Procter and Gamble, established itself in Marseilles. Le Chat brand was launched as Le Chat for washing machines (completely bio-degradable). Its success was very limited and in 1986, the factory closes.

   
         
  Top of the page Today, its usage remains sporadic because of strong competition coming from more sophisticated luxury soaps, foam baths and washing powders manufacturers. The Vendôme Laboratories, established in Provence, have greatly innovated by launching `Le Petit Marseillais'. Since then others have followed suit such as L'Occitane and La Compagnie de Provence.

Until recently, Marseilles soap had been able to defend its position because of its unparalleled qualities: simple, pure, natural and very effective. It is 100% biodegradable and therefore has now been positioned as an ecological product. In addition, it is hypoallergenic and therefore recommended by dermatologists for skin problems and midwives for newly born babies.

   
         
  Top of the page No doubt it will be most interesting to follow over time the evolution of Marseilles Soap and see how the dynamism of new manufacturers will enable it to continue its fascinating life.

Where to find it in London: Heals, Conran, L'Occitane.
To order online www.francetoyourdoor.com

Extract from the book LE SAVON DE MARSEILLE, Patrick Boulanger collection equinoxe

    compagnie de Provence Soap
         

COMMENTS:

17/01/2013 - maxbold-monah said :

Pefrect shot! Thanks for your post!

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