Making Soap on the Homestead
In my present WIP, Penelope Thoroughgood takes in laundry from the Iron Slipper Saloon and Bordello as well as from the bachelors in the town of Hazard, Wyoming. This is the only way for her to eek out a living after her husband was shot dead cheating at cards. Washing laundry in 1912 was a far cry from the convenience we have today.
I remember my grandmother washing clothes and linens on the back porch of her Victorian farm house in Pennsylvania. She had an old wringer washing machine. At least she had electricity. She talked about the lye soap she used and how it made her hands raw. Having never used lye soap myself, I had no idea what the soap was made of or why it made her hands raw, so I dug into some research about the history of soap.
I found some very complicated chemical analysis of how soap works that made my eyes cross and my brain numb. Suffice it to say, it basically lifts the dirt and oils away from the fibers in the cloth, emulsifies the fat (makes it water soluble), and allows the whole mess to be rinsed away. Soap has been around a very long time in its various forms. The earliest on record is around 2800 BC in ancient Babylon. A formula for soap consisting of water, alkali, and cassia oil was written on a Babylonian clay tablet around 2200 BC.
The Ebers papyrus (Egypt, 1550 BC) indicates the ancient Egyptians bathed regularly and combined animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to create a soap-like substance.
In the reign of Nabonidus (556–539 BC), a recipe for soap consisted of ashes, cypress oil and sesame seed oil.
The ancient Romans used oils messaged into their body which they then scraped off along with the dirt with a special instrument called a strigil. In Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis, he mentions the manufacture of soap from tallow and ashes, but he only sites its use as a pomade for hair. Aretaeus of Cappadocia, in the first century AD, noted that among Celts, men called Gauls, used alkaline substances that are made into balls called “soap.”
Galen describes soap-making using lye and prescribed washing with it to carry away impurities from the body and clothes. According to Galen, the best soaps were Germanic, and soaps from Gaul were second best.
In the Middle East, a 12th-century Islamic document describes the process of soap production. It mentions the key ingredient, alkali, which later becomes crucial to modern chemistry, derived from al-qaly or “ashes.”
In Medieval Europe, soap-makers in Naples were members of a guild in the late sixth century. By the eighth century, soap-making was well known in Italy and Spain. The royal will of Charlemagne, mentions soap as one of the products the stewards of royal estates were to keep an account of. Can you imagine being given soap via a will?
By the second half of the 15th century, France began the semi-industrialized, professional manufacture of soap concentrated in a few centers of Provence— Toulon, Hyères, and Marseille which supplied the rest of France. By 1525, in Marseilles, production was concentrated in at least two factories, and soap production at Marseille tended to produce more than the other Provençal centers. English manufacture of soap was concentrated in London.
Finer soaps were later produced in Europe from the 16th century, using vegetable oils (such as olive oil) as opposed to animal fats. Many of these soaps are still produced, both industrially and by small-scale artisans. Castile soap is a popular example of the vegetable-only soaps derived from the oldest “white soap” of Italy.
Until the Industrial Revolution, soap-making was conducted on a small scale and the product was rough. Andrew Pears started making a high-quality, transparent soap in 1807 in London. His son-in-law, Thomas J. Barratt, opened a factory in Isleworth in 1862.
Robert Spear Hudson began manufacturing a soap powder in 1837, initially by grinding the soap with a mortar and pestle. American manufacturer Benjamin T. Babbitt introduced marketing innovations that included sale of bar soap and distribution of product samples. William Hesketh Lever and his brother, James, bought a small soap works in Warrington in 1886 and founded what is still one of the largest soap businesses, formerly called Lever Brothers and now called Unilever. These soap businesses were among the first to employ large-scale advertising campaigns.
Liquid soap was not invented until 1865, when William Shepphard patented a liquid version of soap. In 1898, B.J. Johnson developed a soap made of palm and olive oils. His company, the B.J. Johnson Soap Company, introduced "Palmolive" brand soap. This new kind of soap became popular to such a degree that B.J. Johnson Soap Company changed its name to Palmolive. At the turn of the Twentieth century, Palmolive was the world's best-selling soap.
But, of course, pioneer women had little access to all these wonderful manufactured soap products. They had to make soap themselves and it was a difficult and nasty process. Twice a year, in spring and late fall, probably for the good weather since soap was generally made outside in a huge cauldron.
Making soap was one of the hardest and nastiest of chores, but also one of the most important. Soap was made from ashes, water, and fat. Early spring and late fall were the most popular times for making soap. People saved table scraps and lard all winter for use in spring soap-making. Soap-making required skill in judging correct proportions and temperatures and the process was not always successful. First, water was poured through wood ashes to produce lye. According to the domestic manual, one made soft soap by boiling the lye until it was strong enough to "eat off the soft part of a feather." The grease and lye were then boiled together to produce soap thick enough to form cakes at the bottom of a cup of cold water. This produced a soft, dark yellow paste for washing clothes. To make hard cakes of soap, the lye had to be strong enough "to float an egg." Grease was added to the lye and the mixture boiled until thick, when salt was added. The mixture hardened for a day, then was melted down again before forming hard cakes of soap for bathing. 6 bushels of ashes plus 50 pounds of grease yielded 1 tub of soap.
Of course, modern soap is made with different ingredients such as palm oil and olive oil and the alkali is obtained from a more refined, sodium hydroxide. Essential oils or herbs are added for a delicious scent to make it perfect for a luxurious bath.
Here are some examples of modern soap made in molds of silicone:
If you want to learn how to make soap, here is more information:
Wood Ridge Homestead
Country living in the northern Shenandoah Valley in Virginia
All photographs are free domain from Wikipedia and Amazon.com