We’ve talked about using bleach as part of cleaning a bathroom numerous times, and we’ve probably all popped some bleach down our toilets at some point in our lives (and hopefully regularly, to keep it looking nice and clean). However, what you probably haven’t thought about is the history of bleach.
I won’t blame you, it’s not like the history of household cleaning product is going to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. For history buffs though, like me, learning about the history of anything can be a fascinating journey through the many exciting and fascinating events that make up the entirety of human history. When it comes to bleach the most exciting thing to have ever happened is that someone accidentally uses it a coloured t-shirt, thus leaving it ruined with those white spots. Sorry to disappoint you there.
On the other hand, if love a quick run-down of the history of bleach presented in an entertaining style – or you’re doing your GCSE’s and your teacher has told you to look it up, sorry about that – then please read on and become informed about how we got to the point where your mum has just accidentally ruined your favourite t-shirt.
It Begins In Ancient Times
Bleach was first discovered by an elephant who wanted to turn the costume he’d bought for the party that night to a lovely white…
…this isn’t actually the truth but at least it made for a more interesting opening sentence. Instead it was the good old Egyptians – who tended to be pretty clever at coming up with new things – who discovered that washing and sun-drying their garments would eventually turn them white. It must have been quite a shock when little Nakhti’s mother accidentally dyed his favourite shorts white! This process was being used as early as 5000 B.C, and by 3000 B.C bleaches were being made with wood ashes that formed lye solutions when mixed with water. People would soak their clothes in these lye solutions for a short time, before leaving them out in the sun to dry. It was important that these garments were not left in the solution for too long, as they had a tendency to disintegrate.
A long time passed, and far too many damaged clothes no doubt, before any more advancements were made in the field of bleaching. Between 1000-1200 A.D. the Dutch were becoming known as the laundry experts of Europe. They understood that the lye solution could have harsh effects on the garments being dyed. To soften these effects they added sour milk to the solution, although they were keen to keep it a secret so that they could capitalise on the dyeing trade for themselves. The new method meant that soaking and sun-drying could be repeated more than with lye, as the more clothes were washed using lye alone the more the clothes would deteriorate over time. Unfortunately it took up to eight weeks and a lot of space to allow any fabrics to dry, so bear that in mind next time your local laundry takes a day longer than usual to have your garments ready.
Bleach Becomes, Erm, Bleach!
It was until 1200 A.D. that the first reference to the word ‘bleach’ was actually made, and it would be another few hundred years until more advancement was made. One of the major problems was, as improved as the results were, that the Dutch method took far too long. In 1756 Francis Home, a scientist from Edinburgh, finally cracked it and discovered that adding a weak sulphuric acid instead of sour milk could reduce the bleaching time to just 12 hours.
By 1772 the German/Swedish chemist Karl Wilhelm Scheele had discovered chlorine, a chemical element that would go on to become an essential component in modern bleaches. Despite his discovery it wasn’t actually named ‘chlorine’ until 40 years later, when English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy decided it was best someone finally named this curious gas.
Bleaching advancements were on a roll now, and in 1792 the French scientist Claude Louis Berthollet discovered that adding chlorine to potash created a more powerful bleach. The problem was that getting the exact amounts need for the solution was quite hard, and potash was too expensive for it to be a viable option for long anyway.
A few years later, in 1799, the Scottish chemist Charles Tennant decided to use limestone instead of potash, creating a bleaching powder known as calcium hypochlorite. This become popular in Europe, being used in other products alongside clothes, such as a paper. However, it was still a pricey form of bleach. Making anything using chlorine also remained a risky prospect given the health risks it posed.
A Risky Prospect
As chlorine based dye remained expensive and risky to produce, other components like ammonia, borax and lye would remain more popularly used until 1913. The Electro-Alkaline Co. based in Oakland, California started to make a sodium hypochlorite bleach by chlorinating a solution of caustic soda. While this process had been developed the century before it was too expensive to carry out until electricity became cheaper and it was economically viable to electrolyze salt brine derived from salt ponds. It was sold as a disinfectant to laundries and water companies to treat water.
It wasn’t until 1922, with the company now renamed to Clorox Chemical, that it would start giving it to customers through a local retail store, before going on to distribute it through California, Oregon and Washington. The Literary Digest would extoll the virtues of household bleaching two years later in “The Sanitary Value of Bleach”, before Clorox began advertising the bleach a year later.
During World War II, the chlorine bleach was used to purify water in military camps and in the paper industry. After the war it was accepted into The Good Housekeeping Book, further solidifying its status as now also being used by the common citizen for various household chores.
These days, chlorine-based bleaches are used in everything from clothes to putting down your toilet, with many of them containing sodium hypochlorite. Peroxide bleaches are also used to, initially discovered in 1818 but not becoming commercially important until after 1930. Sodium perborate is also used as laundry bleach too, spreading from Europe to North America in the 1980’s.
I could delve deeper, but that’s covering the basic history of bleach and gives you a story to ponder next time you’re washing clothes or toilets. I hope you had fun!