THE SOAP MAKING PROCESS FROM THE OLDEN DAYS
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This article was
published in the Volunteer Times.
I can well remember my grandmother
making soap in years gone by. I have been searching for some time the
method of this process. I have received permission from the author of
the following to write of this procedure. Perhaps many of the readers
remember the times of soap making and possibly have been involved in
this somewhat ancient craft.
At first the earliest settlers simply
brought an abundant supply of soap along with them. The Talbot, a ship
chartered by the Massachusetts Bay Company to carry persons and supplies
from England to its colonies at Naumbeak, now known as Salem and Boston,
listed among its cargo 2 firkins of soap. A firkin is an old measurement
which was a wooden, hooped barrel of about nine gallon capacity. John
Winthrop, who was to become the first governor of the Massachusetts
Bay Colony, when writing to his wife in 1630 from Boston included soap
in a list of requirements to be brought on her crossing to the New world.
After the colonists were settled and had
been able to survive the first years of hardships, they found it more
beneficial to make soap themselves using the plentiful amount of wood
ashes, an accepted result of their farmstead activities. With also a
plentiful supply of animal fat from the butchering of the animals they
used for food, the colonists had on hand all the ingredients for soap
making. They did not have to rely on waiting for soap to be shipped
from England and waste their goods or few pieces of currency in trade
Soap with some work and luck could be
made for free. Soap making was performed as a yearly or semiannual event
on the homesteads of the early settlers. As the butchering of animals
took place in the fall, soap was made at that time on many homesteads
and farms to utilize the large supply of tallow and lard that resulted.
On the homes or farms where butchering was not done, soap was generally
made in the spring using the ashes from the winter fires and the waste
cooking grease, that had accumulated throughout the year.
In making soap the first ingredient required
was a liquid solution of potash commonly called lye. The lye solution
was obtained by placing wood ashes in a bottomless barrel set on a stone
slab with a groove and a lip carved in it. The stone in turn rested
on a pile of rocks. To prevent the ashes from getting in the solution
a layer of straw and small sticks was placed in the barrel then the
ashes were put on top. The lye was produced by slowly pouring water
over the ashes until a brownish liquid oozed out the bottom of the barrel.
This solution of potash lye was collected by allowing it to flow into
the groove around the stone slab and drip down into a clay vessel at
the lip of the groove.
Some colonists used an ash hopper for
the making of lye instead of the barrel method. The ash hopper was kept
in a shed to protect the ashes from being leached accidentally by a
rain fall. Ashes were added every so often and water was poured over
at intervals to insure a constant supply of lye. The lye dripped into
a collecting vessel located beneath the hopper.
The preparation of the fats or grease
to be used in forming the soap was the next step. This consists of cleaning
the fats and grease of all other impurities contained in them.
The cleaning of fats is called rendering
and is the smelliest part of the soap making operation. Animal fat,
when removed from the animals during butchering, must be rendered before
soap of any satisfactory quality can be made from it. This rendering
removes all meat tissues that still remain in the fat sections. Fat
obtained from cattle is called tallow while fat obtained from pigs is
If soap was being made from grease saved
from cooking fires, it was also rendered to remove all impurities that
had collected in it. The waste cooking grease being saved over a period
of time without the benefits of refrigeration usually became rancid,
This cleaning step was very important to make the grease sweeter. It
would result in a better smelling soap. The soap made from stale fats
or grease would work just as well as soap made from sweet and clean
fats but not be as pleasant to have around and use.
To render, fats and waste cooking grease
were placed in a large kettle and an equal amount of water was added.
Then the kettle was placed over the open fire outdoors. Soap making
was an outside activity. The smell from rendering the fats was too strong
to wish in anyone's house. The mixture of fats and water were boiled
until all the fats had melted. After a longer period of boiling to insure
completion of melting the fats. The fire was stopped and into the kettle
was placed another amount of water about equal to the first amount of
water. The solution was allowed to cool down and left over night. By
the next day the fats had solidified and floated to the top forming
a layer of clean fat. All the impurities being not as light as the fat
remained in water underneath the fat.
In another large kettle or pot the fat
was placed with the amount of lye solution determined to be the correct
amount. This is easier said than done. We will discuss it more later.
Then this pot was placed over a fire again outdoors and boiled. This
mixture was boiled until the soap was formed. This was determined when
the mixture boiled up into a thick frothy mass, and a small amount placed
on the tongue caused no noticeable "bite". This boiling process
could take up to six to eight hours depending on the amount of the mixture
and the strength of the lye.
Soap made with wood ash lye does not make
a hard soap but only a soft soap. When the fire was put out and the
soap mixture was allowed to cool, the next day revealed a brown jelly
like substance that felt slippery to the touch, made foam when mixed
with water, and cleaned. This is the soft soap the colonists had done
all their hard to produce. The soft soap was then poured into a wooden
barrel and ladled out with a wooden dipper when needed.
To make hard soap, common salt was thrown
in at the end of the boiling. If this was done a hard cake of soap formed
in a layer at the top of the pot. As common salt was expensive and hard
to get, it was not usually wasted to make hard soap. Common salt was
more valuable to give to the livestock and the preserving of foods.
Soft soap worked just as well as hard and for these reasons the colonists,
making their own soap, did not make hard soap bars.
In towns and cities where there were soap
makers making soap for sale, the soap would be converted to the hard
soap by the addition of salt. As hard bars it would be easier to store
and transport. Hard bars produced by the soap maker were often scented
with oils such as lavender, wintergreen, or caraway and were sold as
toilet soap to persons living in the cities or towns.
Hard soap was not cut into small bars
and wrapped as soap is sold today. Soap made by the soap makers was
poured into large wooden frames and removed when cooled and hard.
The amount of soap a customer wanted was
cut from the large bar. Soap was sold usually by the pound. Small wrapped
bars were not available until the middle of the 19th century.
Another thought to remember is the soap
making procedure described is not only how the homesteading colonial
women made their soap. Soap making was generally a task the women did.
This was essentially the method used by all soap makers of the period.
Soap making was always considered one of the most difficult jobs on
the farm or homestead.