Marseille soap

A must see of Marseille

If you had to bring back only one souvenir from your stay in Marseille, it would certainly be the famous Marseille soap, which has become so famous throughout the world! Too often imitated by industrialists, but never equalled, real Marseille soap is made from vegetable fats without colouring, perfume or synthetic additives. Containing 72% oils, it minimises the risk of allergies and can be used for all skin types, even for the youngest ones.

The History of Marseille Soap

In the time of the Gauls, soap was already used to wash clothes and dye hair red. This paste was obtained by mixing beechwood ashes and goat’s tallow. It was already recognised as having certain medicinal virtues.
Marseille and soap have a history that goes back almost 700 years, since the first soap maker was recorded around Marseille at the end of the 14th century. In the 16th century, Marseille’s soap industry, established in the aftermath of the Crusades, went beyond the artisanal stage. At the beginning of the 17th century, production could barely meet the demand of the city and the region. The Port of Marseille even received soaps from Genoa and Alicante.
But the war blocked supplies from Spain and the Marseille soap makers had to increase their production in order to supply the French in the North and the Dutch, German and English buyers.

In 1660, there were 7 factories in the city with an annual production of nearly 20,000 tons. Under Colbert, the quality of Marseille’s production was such that “Marseille soap” became a common name. It was a green soap that was sold mainly in 5 kg bars or 20 kg bars. In 1786, 48 soap factories produced 76,000 tonnes in Marseille, employing 600 workers and 1,500 convicts on loan from the Arsenal des Galères. This industry flourished until the First World War, when the difficulty of transporting seeds by sea seriously affected the activity of the soap makers. In 1913, production was 180,000 tonnes, falling to 52,817 tonnes in 1918.
After the war, the soap industry benefited from the progress of mechanisation; the quality of the product was due to the use of the old processes and production rose again to reach 120,000 tonnes in 1938.
When the Second World War broke out, Marseille still provided half of the French production but the years that followed were disastrous.
Today, there are still three soap factories operating in Marseille.

Did you know?

Old tradition says that Marseille soap relieves cramps and rheumatism. In order to do this, you should place a piece of soap at the bottom of your bed…

Marseille soap, a precise systematic classification

Made famous throughout the world, Marseille soap is a quality product that requires a very precise classification in order to justify its label. It is essential to verify the presence of the logo registered by the ‘Union des Professionnels du Savon de Marseille’ to ensure the authenticity of the product. Be careful, not all soaps, even those sold in Marseille, are genuine Marseille soaps! Marseille soap must contain at least 72% vegetable oil, information that is stamped on one side of the small green or white cube. That percentage of oil has many benefits, such as its mildness, which unlike industrial soaps does not irritate the skin. Moreover, it is recommended by dermatologists for certain skin diseases such as eczema or psoriasis. Finally, it can be used as a disinfectant for small wounds. The virtues of Marseille soap are multiple since it is also used to wash clothes. Today, soap is part of the vernacular heritage of Marseille. It can be used as a souvenir or a gift to bring back to loved ones.

Is Marseille soap necessarily green or white?

On the markets, soaps are often sold under the name “Marseille soap”. The first thing to do is to look at the colour of the soap. Although the variations of red, pink, yellow, blue, may seem attractive and representative of Provence, it is not so. Marseille soaps are either olive green (based on olive oil) or white (based on palm, copra or peanut oil). As with any cosmetic product, it is advisable to ensure that the composition is well detailed (on the soap or on the label).
Unfortunately, nowadays the name Marseille soap is not protected and there are many counterfeits on the market. (Soap made with animal fat, coloured, perfumed…). Be vigilant during your shopping in Marseille.

Is Marseille soap really made in Marseille?

This is not a lie, the 4 soap factories that produce the traditional Marseille soap in cauldrons are all located in the Bouches-du-Rhône, there are 3 in Marseille. Marseille soap is therefore a product of local craftsmanship and know-how. These soap factories practice the saponification process known as ‘au chaudron’. In a large cauldron, vegetable oils are transformed into soap by the action of soda (base).
It is possible to visit certain soap factories at certain times (please enquire beforehand). Le Fer à Cheval and the Savonnerie du Midi offer guided tours during the week.

Soap factories in Marseille

Le Fer à Cheval                                                                                                              
66 Chemin de Sainte Marthe 13014 Marseille – (Shop and factory)
04 91 10 30 80

Le Serail
50, Bd Anatole de la Forge 13014 Marseille (Shop and factory)
04 91 98 28 25

Savonnerie du Midi
72, Rue Augustin Roux 13015 Marseille (Museum, shop and factory)
04 91 60 54 04

La Savonnerie Marius Fabre
148 Avenue Paul Bourret, 13300 Salon-de-Provence
04 90 53 24 77

Glossary of manufacturing

The different stages of soap making will change very little over time. They are still used today.

Mashing of oils: emulsion of fats with alkaline lyes. The mixture is brought to boil in huge cauldrons.
refining: removal of impurities from the bottom of the cauldron three times.
liquidation: boiling the lye for hours, then splicing again and spraying with pure water to precipitate the last impurities to the bottom of the cauldron.
drying in moulds.
cutting when the soap is still soft.
stamping: name and brand of the manufacturer after hardening.

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