In a scientific definition the compounds of fatty acids with basic metallic oxides, lime, magnesia, lead oxide, &c., should also be included under soap; but, as these compounds are insoluble in water, while the very essence of a soap in its industrial relations is solubility, it is better to speak of the insoluble compounds as " plasters, " limiting the name " soap " as the compounds of fatty acids with soda and potash.
As to the detergent action of a soap, Berzelius held that it was due to the free alkali liberated with water; but it is difficult to see why a solution which has just thrown off most of its fatty acids should be disposed to take up even a glyceride, and, moreover, on this theory, weak cold solutions, in which the hydrolysis is considerable, should be the best cleansers, whilst experience points to the use of hot concentrated solutions.
The process of manufacturing soaps by boiling fatty acids with caustic alkalis or sodium carbonate came into practice with the development of the manufacture of candles by saponifying fats, for it provided a means whereby the oleic acid, which is valueless for candle making, could be worked up. The combination is effected in open vats heated by a steam coil and provided with a stirring appliance; if soda ash be used it is necessary to guard against boiling over.
Lye still continues to be poured in till a sample tastes distinctly alkaline - a test which indicates that the whole of the fatty acids have been taken up by and combined with the alkali.
The first is carried out by saponifying the soap with acid in the heat when the fatty acids come to the surface.