Persistence, changes and relationship with the early soaps

   The knowledges and practices related to the ash soap making by the women from Minas Gerais are independent of any conventional chemical knowledge and do not use any industrial technological resource. Are their own and inherited from mothers and grandmothers, in general.

   Most of the women do not produce the ash soap anymore, given the current easy access and low cost of soaps and cleansing agents produced industrially. For this reason and due to the work involved there is a tendency toward its extinction. However, some women persist on its use and making:

Rosa: I do make. Always I make. Make a little, but I do.

   This persistence is probably due to the ash soap´s cleaning efficiency without harming the skin and to family and community values associated and transmitted over generations. Some heirs of the making knowledge used to produce the soap for trade:

Aparecida: Me, on that pan that I have there at home, I´ve taken yet 40 bars of soap. I made a lot to sell, you know? I made a lot of soap.

   Over time, however, changes led to the ash soap´s oblivion:

Anésia: Nowadays the people don´t know.

Aparecida: Many people do not know what is the ash soap, isn´t it? This is because everything changes, right? Then, there is no longer use for the ash soap.

   These changes also brought another type of social behavior, according to the women:

Anésia: Eeh, but people of today don´t want to know nothing no.

Rosa: When I came to make it here, the boys speak like that to me – give it to me. No, I won’t give you anything. You are the ones that have to learn. So they speak – but I don’t know to make this no. Oh, but you don’t know because of what? They don´t know neither to learn.

   In the quest to understand the origins of the ash soap between these women, there is a possible relationship with the oldest soap known. The literature points that soaps made with ashes were the precursors of modern soaps and cleaning products. However, the most ancient soap must has been produced unintentionally in the pre-historic times, by roasting meat over bonfires, where the fat ended to mix with the ashes in the fireplaces.

Soap in pre historic times

Soap in pre historic times

   Over time this habit also may have led to the use of ashes and their wash waters (lyes) on cleaning, since the preparation of these waters were practiced by many ancient people. The method of loading ashes in a cloth bag, which was immersed in water for hands and face cleaning was in use in European homes until the 19th century (Levey, 1954). Nevertheless, its use in soaps production seems to have occurred only since the beginning of the Christian era (Gibbs, 1939).

   The discovery or the preparation of the ash soap seems to have occurred originally in the first century A.D., as recorded by Pliny, quoted both by Gibbs (1939) and Levey (1954). Gibbs mentioned that the discoverers of this soap were the Gauls and the Fanti people from West Africa, at the same time and independently. Nevertheless, its use in cleaning began to occur only in the second century A.D. in a restricted mode, according to Gibbs (1939). Before it was used to dye red the hair of the Gauls, probably due to the mineral composition of the ashes used on its preparation. There is also an indication of its medicinal use, probably in skin diseases.

   Since its use in body and objects cleaning, the soaps made with ashes began to be produced and used in other places in Europe and Africa and afterwards were brought to the New World through the colonization processes. In the settlement of North America, for instance, the British brought with them the soap produced in their country, but over time they found more advantageous to prepare it by themselves in the colony as a way to take advantage of the resulting ashes of household stoves and fat from the animal used on feeding. In the book The Canadian Settlers Guide, published in 1855, the writer Catherine Traill mentioned the preparation of ash soaps in Canada in a quite similar way to that observed in Minas Gerais in Brazil, with slight variations in the equipment and in the sources of the ingredients used.

   However, who brought it to Brazil? Is there, as a matter of fact, relation with the first soaps produced in human history or is independent? Who disseminated its making and use to the point to observe today the same procedures, materials and languages between different people that don´t know each other?

   It is difficult to say if the ash soap arrived in Brazil through the Portuguese or other European immigrants, or came by other cultural groups, such as those who came from Africa, for example. It seems that there is no written record about it. It is not possible that it derived from the native people either, as it is not found between the current brazilian indigenous groups.

   A hypothesis is that the female slaves from Africa were the first ones to produce the ash soap in Brazilian lands and the responsible for its knowledge dissemination, as it involves hard work, as these women played an important role in the cleaning and hygiene practices of the houses in the colony and also because this is the belief of some women who inherited its making mode. The language associated also suggests African roots for the ash soap and in the book Tecnologia Africana na formação brasileira (African technology in brazilian formation), Cunha Junior (2010, p. 31) mentioned the soap importation from Africa to the colony in the mid of  1780, as well as coconut trees to oil production aiming to replace the animal fat on soap´s production.

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Colonial Soap Making. Its Histories and Techniques. Found at: <>. Last access: Nov. 13, 2014.

Cunha Junior, H. (2010). Tecnologia Africana na formação brasileira. Rio de Janeiro: CEAP.

Gibbs, F. W. (1939). The history of the manufacture of soap. Annales of Science, 169-190.

Levey, M. (1954). The early history of detergent substances. Journal of Chemical Education, 521-524.

Traill, C. P. S. (1855). The Canadian Settlers Guide. Toronto: Old Countryman Office, 167-173.

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