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.