It’s a cleaning supply we all almost take for granted. If you have dishes, you need dish soap. But how many of us have taken the time to consider where one of our most essential household items came from?
What makes dishwashing liquid different from other soaps? When did we start using it, and do we really need to? Is it better to hand wash with liquid dish soap or to machine wash with dish detergent?
The history of dishwashing liquid can illuminate so much for us. Through the study of its history, you may discover something about the chemistry of dish detergent. You may learn old washing techniques that are useful for your vintage dishes or tougher to remove imperfections. You may get a better clue about what to look for when choosing a modern-day dish soap.
From the dawn of soap to mass production in the 1950s, there’s a rich history to the world of dish cleaning agents. Let’s take a look at the timeline!
2800 BC: The Beginning of Soap
Some of the earliest mentions of soap come from the records of the Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians. The people living during that time were combining alkaline salts with animal and vegetable fats in order to make soap. This process of turning oil into soap using an alkaline substance is called saponification.
They used its antibacterial qualities to cleanse the outer body to prevent and treat skin infections. It was also used to clean wool and other textiles before manufacturing clothing. Most relevant to our topic today, soap was used since its invention to clean utensils after eating.
7th Century: Soap Usage Spreads
By the 7th Century, the use of soap had spread to many European countries. In fact, the name “soap” comes from the Roman Mount Sapo. (Makes sense when you think of the word saponification, right?). Rainwater washed down through the mountain mixing with clay and other natural materials to create a substance that made cleaning easier.
Italy, Spain, and France were all soap hot centers using readily available ingredients such as olive oil.
The Middle Ages: A Dark Time for Soap
After the fall of Rome, soap usage was less common, which led to the unsanitary lifestyle that many associate with the Middle Ages.
However, although cleanliness was less of a priority in Europe, places outside of that continent still valued cleaning and soap products. Japan was still full of daily bathers. Iceland had hot springs that people would use to bathe. And Nordic and Slavic countries were regular users of the sauna and banya to bathe.
12th to 17th Century: A Rise in Soaps
Beginning in the 12th Century, people started making soap in their homes in England and the Americas. It was still unlikely that you could buy the product in stores, but people recognized a need for it and would use oils from their own farm processes in order to make it.
Soap during this era was used for household cleaning as well as personal bathing. But let’s take a look at some of the dishes they may have been using.
Many meals were cooked on a spit over a fire and so would not have pans to clean. Think of how you clean your grill. Wrought iron spits could simply have leftover food burnt off of them.
Many pots and pans were made of either brass, which would require water and abrasion to clean, or cast iron, which could not withstand abrasive soaps and needed to just be washed with water.
19th Century: Soap Becomes a Luxury
In 1791, Nicholas Leblanc introduced a new method of making soap involving making soda ash from table salt. By 1850, this achievement with the rise in factory production made soap much more widely available.
At first, it was a luxury item that was highly taxed and only available to the wealthy so the poor continued to make their own soap at home. But eventually, the tax was removed and all people started buying soap and living generally more clean lives.
World War I: The Dawn of Detergents
In 1916, the First World War affected the production of animal and vegetable fats which made the traditional methods of making soap impossible at a wide scale. A synthetic cleaning material needed to be introduced. That synthetic cleaning agent is known as detergent.
Although making detergent was out of necessity, many benefits of detergent were discovered. For example, it didn’t leave a residue on clothes or dishes.
Today, most cleaning agents that we call soaps are actually detergents! Unless you buy a bar from an artisan soap maker, you’re probably buying even hand detergent at the store.
1949: The First Nationally Marketed Dish Soap
In 1949, Joy soap introduced the first nationally marketed liquid dish soap. You can find its original newspaper and television advertisements where it promises to cut through the grease and hard water of dirty dishes.
After all, this is the most important quality in a dish detergent. Just plain water rolls right off of greases, while a dish soap interacts with the grease and oils to remove them.
Nearly every advancement in dish soap manufacturing was spearheaded by Joy soap. They were the first to introduced the squeezable plastic bottle for dish soap. They introduced the lemon scent that most people associate first with all cleaning products today.
They also added the ingredients list to the back of the bottle. Imagine buying dish soap without being able to read about the ingredients inside to be sure they were safe for your family. Without Joy soap’s innovation, that would be your reality today.
The Chemical Makeup of Dishwashing Liquid
Speaking of ingredients, what makes dish soap work?
As you learned previously, the grease left on your dishes after a meal is immune to the effects of water. They create a hydrophobic surface that water can easily wash off of.
The dish soap solution has two opposing molecules in its mixture. Those molecules are hydrophobic (like the grease) and hydrophilic (meaning it attracts water.
The hydrophobic part attaches itself to the grease on your dishes. Meanwhile, the hydrophilic part is trying to attach itself to the water as it rushes past.
The hydrophilic component ultimately wins out, but since the hydrophobic part has already attached itself to the grease, the whole thing (detergent, grease, and water) gets washed away together.
The right dish soap only needs a small amount on your sponge to get the job done because it will make lots of suds when activated by warm water to attach itself to grease.
You don’t even need to leave the water running. Activate your soap and then turn the water off. Scrub all your dishes and turn the water back on when you’re ready to rinse.
Other Dish Soap Uses Today
We’ve all seen commercials where dish soaps prove their gentle effectiveness by cleaning birds covered in oil. This practice was introduced after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1989.
It’s the perfect tool for the job because liquid dish detergent was invented to be safe on your hands while you wash (gentle) but powerful enough on grease or oils (such as gasoline oil) to remove it from objects. Dish soap has been vital in the rescuing of birds and other wildlife after the over 200 oil spills since the Exxon Valdez spill.
You can see this power for yourself the amazing gentle cleaning powers of dish soap on living creatures next time you work on your car. If your hands are covered in grease, try washing them with dish soap instead of hand soap, and see for yourself how effective it is.
The End of the Dish Soap Timeline
We’ve reached the present day, and hopefully, your questions are answered. Although the history of soap is long, the invention of dishwashing liquid detergent is fairly recent! It’s a fascinating invention that has made our lives, safer, cleaner, and more efficient.
Remember that detergent is a synthetic soap and more common today than traditional soap-making methods, which came from animal and vegetable fats. The next time you pick out your dish detergent, look at the ingredients and learn to identify the hydrophobic and hydrophilic components. And remember who first came to the market and continues to innovate in the dish detergent world.
Did you find this explanation of the history of dishwashing liquid interesting? If the history and science of homecare interest you, check out our other articles in the Home and Decor section!