The history of Marseille soap

A long lasting history

Thanks to its abundant raw materials –  olive oil, soda and salt in Camargue – Provence became, from the Middle Ages onwards, the first soap producing region.

Marseille, a hub of commerce, became in the 17th century the main production site of soap in France, followed by Salon-de-Provence, and then by Toulon.

In 1688, Louis XIV laid down, by means of an Edict of Colbert, the rules which institutionalised Marseilles soap : besides the heating in great cauldrons, it was compulsory to use as vegetable oils only pure olive oil. Every animal fat was forbidden. Those who did not obey risked banishment from Provence! This Edict allowed Marseille soap to win the fame which it was never to lose…

The 19th century

Thanks to industrial and colonial development in the second half of the 18th century, production doubled and the impact on sea trade linked the name of Marseilles permanently to what had been a regional product.

The 19th century brought progress in hygiene, technology (steam, electricity, mechanisation), chemistry, railways…

In spite of these advances and the appearance of advertising in the early 20th century, international competition increased and the decline of the following decades loomed.

The Golden age of Marseille soap

The 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century were the golden age of the extra pure 72% oil Marseille soap. Marseille and Salon thrived thanks to soap-making and the production of oil, becoming the leading economic sector of the area.

The 1940’s brought this boom to an end : the soap industry continued to decline in the region of Marseille. This decline had several reasons, such as the appearance of synthetic detergents and the spread of washing-machines, the development of supermarkets, the creation of new soap companies in other regions, the fall of the French Empire.

Ecology

The return to natural and ecological values in the 1970’s and 1980’s, heralded a renewal for Marseille soap which will nevertheless never regain its previous importance. It is a fact that, of the 108 soap companies in Marseille and the 14 in Salon, in 1924, only 3 have survived in Marseille and 2 in Salon in 2018. Marseille soap has now become a historical element of the region.

Today, consumers are rediscovering the virtues of this natural and environment friendly product, an alternative to chemical and petroleum-based products.