Soap and Ashes


‘Bucking’, washing with a lye of ashes, painted by Jean-François Millet, 1853-4


The alkalis provided by the burning and refining of plant matter, commonly called potashes, were the key alkaline component of the early modern chemical industry, and thus a key element in the production of soap, glass, ceramics, and the processing of textiles. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries their supply largely relied on a major trade through the geopolitical bottleneck of the Baltic. From then 1640s, Russia's port of Archangel emerged as a major source of potash, later to be eclipsed by North America from the 1760s, although the European ash trade lasted long into the nineteenth century. The quantities of wood were enormous; during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, more wood was annually converted to potash in the eastern Baltic and shipped to north-west Europe than grew in all of the British Isles and Netherlands: millions of pounds of ash, equivalent to millions of cubic metres of wood. By 1810, Britain imported the equivalent of a staggering 25 million cubic metres of wood in the form of ash in a single year, as much wood that as grew annually in the whole of Germany at that time. Leading chemists such as William Cullen, Joseph Black and Humphry Davy investigated the properties of plant ash and sought substitutes for this essential resource.

This project traces the chronology, size, geography and form of the ash trade. Initial publications will focus on the British trade, followed by the Dutch, and the impact that the demand of the industrial and commercial centres of north-west Europe had on the distant suppliers of ash in Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Wallachia (Romania) and Scandinavia. It has been supported by a grant from the British Academy.