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How the Gabrovo masters have been making soap for more than 200 years

The masters of soap from the Gabrovo region, Bulgaria, are the only ones in our country who have preserved the craft of soap making for more than two centuries. They were the first who created Bulgarian toilet soap in order to stop the invasion of imported soap. They also managed to withstand the market pressure of cheap soaps from the Greek island of Crete. These days homemade soap is boiled in every rural house in the Gabrovo region, Central Bulgaria.

Soap is made from boiled tallow or lard with lye (ash dissolved in water). The craft of soap making has been very profitable in the regions of Gabrovo and Sevlievo in the XVIII and XIX centuries. But the history of soap is much longer, writes Velichka Ilieva in the book “Folk Crafts – Past, Present, and Future”. During Homer’s time, nothing was added to the water for washing. Later, some vegetable juice and ash were added.

For washing in ancient Rome they collected urine from passers-by

In ancient Rome, people placed dishes in the streets to collect urine from passers-by. The liquid had been used for washing. Pliny first reported for a soap with which the ancient Gauls dyed their hair. The real discoverers of the soap are the Phoenicians, then the Gauls started to use it and it happened 600 years before the new era. The Arabs used soap as a cream against skin diseases.

Gabrovo soap

Historical data show that soap was used for washing and cleaning in the second century AD. In the ninth century, soap was already traded in Marseilles, and in the 15th century, Venice became a center of the soap trade. At the beginning of the 17th century, 20 soap makers produced soap in England.

The beginning of the soap industry in Bulgaria was set with the opening of the soap factory in 1874 in Veliko Tarnovo by Georgi Smilov, and later, in 1893, a soap factory was opened in Varna. For centuries, the population of the Gabrovo region has used fats to make soap for household needs. During the winter season, women also collect waste fat to boil soap.

For the cooking of soap, they collected spoiled lard

Every housewife brews soap once a year – in spring or autumn. Before that, a special place for cooking is prepared, a stirrer is made, a wicker basket made of willow or hazel sticks, a wooden trough, a copper cauldron. The walls and bottom of the wicker basket are covered with straw. Quicklime and wood ash are placed on the straw, straw again on top. The basket is placed above the trough in which the liquid is collected. Boiling continues for several hours, stirring constantly with a wooden stirrer. When cooled, the soap is cut with a wire or a large knife into molds.

Gabrovo soap

Apart from domestic conditions, soap making as a business activity also developed in the Gabrovo region. According to information from old soap makers, notes from old notebooks, and fragments of such from the first years of the XIX century it is clear that in 1809 in Gabrovo there were already soap makers. Thus, in a document from 1823, found in the church “St. Ivan the Forerunner” soap making is among the organized crafts.

It is believed that soap making came from Brasov. Gabrovo residents in the second half of the 18th century had close and direct trade relations with this Transylvanian town. The production of soap is carried out in ordinary wooden huts covered with stone slabs. The masterworks in them together with two or three assistants – journeymen and apprentices.

A man from Gabrovo started the production of toilet soap to stop the import

The soap makers inhabited an entire neighborhood in the town Sevlievo, in which their workshops were located. They produced soap for washing and laundry and oil candles. AThe local producer Rachko Tsankov started boiling soap with soda. Treating the fat with soda instead of hot water shortened the time of boiling from 7 to three days. This saving of time, labor, and fuel enabled Rachko Tsankov to compete with the other soap makers.

Gabrovo soap

The second improvement in soap making took place in 1876 by Stefan Sultanov. His high-quality soap was appreciated. He also started to produce toilet soap, thus stopping the import of toilet soap from abroad.
Soap making as a craft is experiencing an incredible rise. Locally produced soaps had been sold from Vidin to Dobrudzha, the Eastern Balkans and the Black Sea, to Tulcea, Magnalia, and Edirne.

Bulgarian soaps had been famous from Dobrudzha to Edirne

Towards the middle of the 19th century, however, the fate of the soap makers changed dramatically. The famous at that time Cretan soap appeared on the market and at the fairs – much cheaper, purely made, and delivered in large quantities. This caused a rapid decline in the production of Bulgarian soap and the decline of a large number of artisan soap makers.

Only the Gabrovo soap makers continued the production, striving to compete with the Cretan soap by improving the quality. Soap making as a craft in the Gabrovo region died and was not practiced in the second half of the 20th century. But now, at the beginning of the XXI century, there is almost no house in the villages of the Gabrovo region where soap is not boiled.

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