History of soap manufacturing
In the time of the Gauls, soap was already being used for washing clothes and tinting hair red. The paste was obtained by blending ashes of beech wood and goat suet. It was said to possess certain medicinal virtues.
The Marseilles soap factory set up in the 16th century just after the crusades took the activity a step beyond the handicraft level. At the beginning of the 17th century, production in the Marseille factories was barely sufficient to satisfy demand from the city and the region. The Port of Marseilles even received soap from Genoa and Alicante.
Then the war blocked supplies coming from Spain, and so soap manufacturers in Marseille had to increase their production to be able to supply the north of France and buyers from the Netherlands, Germany and England.
In 1660 there were 7 manufacturers in the city whose annual production was close to 20,000 tons. Under Colbert, the quality of soap produced in Marseille was such that “Marseilles soap” became a byword. At that time the soap was green coloured and was sold in 5 kg bars or 20 kg blocks. In 1786, 48 soap manufacturers were producing 76,000 tons in Marseille. They employed 600 workers and 1,500 convicts loaned by the prison of Arsenal des Galères.
The industry boomed up to the first world war, when shipping became difficult and the local soap manufacturing activity was severely affected. In 1913, production was 180,000 tons, falling to 52,817 tons in 1918.
After the war, soap manufacturing benefited from the progress in mechanization. The quality of the product was due to the use of traditional processes, and production grew, reaching 120,000 tons in 1938. When the second world war broke out, Marseilles was still producing half the national output but the following years were to prove disastrous. Today there are still two manufacturers in activity: Le Sérail and le Fer à Cheval.