MuSaMa Savon de Marseille Preserving Provencal History
Le Musée de Savon de Marseille
MuSaMa opened in mid-March (2018) near the Vieux Port. This museum, boutique and workshop are dedicated to safeguarding the reputation of Savon de Marseille.
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. For example, an estimated 95 % of soap branded and sold as “Savon de Marseille” globally is produced outside 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 and its usage for domestic purposes. Discover how 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 can personalize their bar of soap.
The MuSaMa boutique offers products from several of the traditional savonneries in the city. Buy soaps from 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 – that propelled commercial trade.
The original soap recipe 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 raw materials; olive oil, saltwater 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 are only a few traditional Savon de Marseille producers selling their products globally. Still, the industry has created a permanent impact on the urban growth and development of Marseille.
Making Savon de Marseille
Today’s vast choice in domestic cleaning agents is far removed from the harsh soaps of antiquity made with animal fats. However, the increased environmental awareness of harmful chemicals in some detergents stimulates the demand for ecological soaps.
During my visit to MuSaMa, Sylvain Dijon, one of the three founders of Le Grande Savonnerie, ran demonstrations in the soap workshop. He confirmed that making Savon de Marseille is not complicated, but 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).
Soap Making Process
Traditional soap making requires patience and time:
- Cooking: In large cauldrons, a mixture of olive oil, the alkaline chemical (soda ash), and water is heated. 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, flushing impurities and any remaining alkaline chemicals. After three to four days, the soap maker verifies that the soap is residue-free.
- Resting: The heat for the cauldron is turned off. The mixture stands for three (3) days.
- Moulding: During the resting phase, the frames are prepared a final filter takes place as the mixture flows from the cauldron. The thick liquid is then levelled and dried left to harden for two (2) days.
- Cutting: The initial cut is into large blocks that weigh close to 40 kilograms. The smaller blocks are often produced mechanically with a cutting machine. Then the cubes move to racks for up to two weeks of drying.
- Stamping: Stamping the soap blocks on all six (6) sides is the final step. The tampon (stamp) includes the company’s logo and 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
La Grande Savonnerie (website)
Le Fer à Cheval (website)
Savonnerie l’Abeille (website)
Savonnerie Marseillaise de la Licorne (website)
Les Savons de Saint-Victor (website)
La Corvette Savonnerie du Midi (website & e-boutique)
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.