MuSaMa Savon de Marseille Preserving Provencal History
Le Musée de Savon de Marseille
MuSaMa opened in mid-March (2018), this museum-boutique-workshop dedicated to safeguarding the reputation of Savon de Marseille is centrally located near the Vieux Port. The vision of the museum’s founders is to educate visitors about the vrai (real) Savon de Marseille, its eco-friendly ingredients, and artisanal production. This goal is no small challenge in a world that is awash (pardon the pun) in imitation products. An estimated 95 % of soap branded and sold as “Savon de Marseille” globally is not only produced outside of France, and the ingredients are not traditional.
Jean-Baptiste Jaussaud, the current president of the Conservatoire National du Savon de Marseille, directed the concept for MuSaMa. In partnership with Crédit Agricole, the members of this conservation group hope to inform visitors (both tourists and locals) about the history and the production of this soap that is emblematic of the second largest city in France.
The museum is small at 400 m² which is an ideal size for anyone with limited time. MuSaMa’s space is divided into three sections. The first of which is an informative display related to the history of Savon de Marseille, its usage for domestic purposes and how the industrial production impacted the city, and the region. There are interactive sections of the exhibit and a short video in French. At the heart of the museum’s space, is an atelier (workshop) where every visitor gets the chance to produce and personalise their bar of soap. The MuSaMa boutique offers products from several of the traditional savonneries in the city including La Grande Savonnerie, Le Fer à Cheval, Savonnerie l’Abeille, La Licorne, and Savonnerie de Saint-Victor.
History of Savon de Marseille
Greek sailors arrived first in roughly 600 BC to a sheltered natural harbour they named Massilia, the location of the Vieux Port today. It’s unlikely that these Phocean mariners were terribly interested in their hygiene. The settlement fell to Roman rule in 49 BC, and the port became a central part of their trading network. However, it was wine, olive oil, almonds, fabrics and spices – not soap – propelled commercial trade at that time.
The original recipe for soap is thought to have originated from Aleppo in Syria. By the 6th century, Naples had a soap makers’ guild, and by the 8th century, organised soap production was in place in both Italy and Spain. The French followed suit in the 9th century, but it took until 1370 for the first commercial soap maker to establish operations in Marseille.
By the middle of the 15th century, French soap manufacturing was primarily in the Provencal towns of Marseille, Toulon and Hyères. All three centres benefited from the easy access to the required raw materials; olive oil, salt water and salicorne ashes from the Camargue. Marseille out-produced the other centres by 1525. However, it was the edict of Colbert, in 1688, under King Louis XIV that restricted the use of the name Savon de Marseille, to the immediate geographic area surrounding Marseille. The Royal decree also dictated the use of only olive oil over animal fats. Napoléon Ist further protected the industry which continued to flourish well into the 20th century.
In 1924, 132 soap manufacturers existed in Marseille, Toulon and Salon-de-Provence. Today, there only a few traditional Savon de Marseille producers selling their products globally, but the industry has created a permanent impact on the urban growth and development of Marseille.
Making Savon de Marseille
The vast choice in cleaning agents for domestic uses today is far from removed from the harsh soaps of antiquity made with animal fats. However, the heightened awareness of the environmental impacts from harmful chemicals in some detergents is stimulating demand for ecological soaps.
During my visit to MuSaMa, Sylvain Dijon, one of the three founders of Le Grande Savonnerie, was running demonstrations in the soap workshop. He confirmed that producing Savon de Marseille is not complicated, although the production takes 8-10 days. This soap requires three ingredients: additive-free, industrial-grade olive oil (72% to be considered the real savon), saltwater and sodium carbonate (natural soda ash – from the ashes of sodium-rich plants).
Traditional soap making requires patience and time:
- Cooking: The mixture of olive oil, the alkaline chemical (soda ash), and water is heated in large cauldrons. The combination of ingredients triggers a chemical process called saponification. During the cooking, the particles separate to form two products; the salt of a fatty acid (a semi-solid paste), and glycerin.
- Washing: The paste is boiled at 100 °C and washed with salt water to flush out any impurities and any remaining alkaline chemicals. After three to four days, the soap maker verifies that the soap is the residue-free.
- Resting: The heat for the cauldron is turned off, and the mixture is left to stand for three (3) days.
- Molding: The frames are prepared during the resting phase. The mixture is filtered one final time as it flows from the cauldron. The thick liquid is levelled and allowed to dry and harden for two (2) days.
- Cutting: The initial cut is into large blocks that weigh close to 40 kilograms. The smaller blocks are typically produced mechanically with a cutting machine. Then the cubes move to racks for up to two weeks of drying.
- Stamping: In the final step, the soap blocks are stamped on all six (6) sides with a “tampon” bearing the name of the company and other details.
The result – Savon de Marseille – pure, natural, biodegradable soap.
Explanation panels for the static display are in both French and English.
Marseille Soap Producers
Image credits: All photos provided by and published with the permission of L’Equipe du MuSaMa
Other reading: Squeaky Clean, for more background on Savon de Marseille.