Monday, August 18, 2014

Making Soap on the Homestead

Sarah McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery, Victory Tales Press, Prairie Rose Publications and Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press, imprints of Prairie Rose Publications. She welcomes you to her website at
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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


  1. Sarah--very thorough research.
    My granny had a barrel outside to make the lye from ashes. I remember that much, although I don't recall the soap.
    But one of Mother's sisters in South Dakota made soap in her basement because she wanted to, and because she thought her soap was superior to any she could buy. She saved bacon fat, every drop, and when the mixture was mixed, she poured it into shallow cardboard boxes. She did this most of her life until her passing sometime in the 80s.
    I think it was a hobby more than anything.
    I do know that any bar of soap was probably used sparingly, down to the tiniest sliver.
    I feel guilty sometimes when I toss a sliver of soap in the trash--and my Depression baby husband, has, more than once taken several slivers and pressed them together to use. Bless his heart.

  2. Celia, my grandmother had a difficult time allowing herself to enjoy scented, manufactured soap. She had a drawer in her dresser reserved for all her precious soap. (The little hoarder)
    I left out a great deal of the research, especially the chemical composition stuff. It was overwhelming and reminded me of college chemistry (not my favorite subject). Yikes!
    I wonder how your grandmother kept the soap from smelling like bacon. Maybe the process takes out all that.
    I'm guilty of throwing out soap slivers, too. The only time I didn't was Kappus Poppy soap because I knew it would be a long time before I would be able to get another one.
    Thank you so much for your comment. You must get up at the crack of dawn, Celia. I like to get up early so I don't miss anything.

  3. My grandmother, a Texas farm woman who married in 1910, used to make her own soap. It was a family enterprise with all the brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. They did it in the fall after the hog killing, when there would be lots of fat available - and the weather was cool enough to bear standing over a boiling cauldron. In the early 40s she got a wringer washer (which I can remember) and it was the jewel of her life. My mother could remember the soapmakings, but they ceased long before I was born.

    I missed the Depression, too, but my parents didn't, and they installed a strong ethic of minginess in me. I save all the soap slivers until there is a fair amount (or I have time!) then chip them up, barely cover them with water and heat until the chips melt. Then I pour into molds and - voila! - lots of new soap.

    Thanks for an interesting article.

  4. Hi Sarah, Great article. I was wondering about soap that my character (WIP) uses. Since it would be June in the book, it seems she would have missed soap making season. That's just as well, it sounds like a process.
    Would the soap used to bathe with be hand size yellow round balls? Do you think they added any scent, like flower petals? WIP is Colorado prairie - 1875. Thanks!

  5. A very interesting article Sarah. Soap making certainly was a hard and nasty chore, and not considered a hobby at that time like today. When it comes to chores like soap making, I am thankful I was not born in those earlier days. Thank you for sharing. All the best.

  6. Hi Sarah,
    Wow, that was an interesting post.We don't know how lucky we are living in this age.



  7. Susan, your family history seems so similar to my own. My grandmother loved that dang wringer washing machine, too. Like you, I missed the Great Depression, but I certainly heard a lot about it from my parents and grandparents. Our generation learned from their frugal ways I guess. You certainly did. I have never "remade" soap by saving the leftovers and then boiling them together. Do you use a silicone mold, or do you go old school with the wooden or cardboard box?
    Thank you so much for coming by and giving a piece of your own family history. I love hearing about them.

  8. Connie, that's so great that your character was in on the soap making, too. The soap was yellow and some people did shape it into balls, but from what I read, mostly it was set in wooden molds to "cure". I had the same question as you about the scent being added. The French soap apparently had scent added to it in the form of herbs or oils. I'm certain one of them was lavender since it is an herb the French are famous for. Imagine the fragrance of a field of lavender. Wow! As for the homesteaders, the literature didn't mention the addition of scents to the soap. On the prairie, I'm not sure if there was anything available to use for scent. If they had herbs in their gardens for seasoning food such as rosemary, I would think they would have thought to add it, but I don't really know. Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting.

  9. Well JoAnne, what we do as hobbies today were chores they had to carry out in those earlier days. I don't think they thought it was much fun either. I imagine we would be considered an indolent bunch today because we don't do all the work they did. I can't even imagine how busy they must have been every single day. Like you, I'm glad I am not expected to make my own soap, let alone all the other chores like washing clothes by hand and hanging them on the line. I have hung clothes on a line many times in my youth. The clothes and linens smelled great, but it was a drudge to do it. I hated going out to hang clothes in the winter.
    Thank you for taking the time to come by and comment. That's very sweet of you.

  10. You have that right, Margaret; I'm glad we don't have to do all that work, either. It might be fun to do as a hobby--maybe once just to see what it's like, but that's about it.
    I really appreciate you coming by to comment.

  11. What fabulous information, Sarah. I always wondered why such yucky stuff like ashes, fat and lye were used for something to get us clean. I admit to enjoying nice soaps...and how fascinating to learn how Palmolive got its name! Great post today.

  12. Sarah, what a wonderful bunch of information! I think my eyes would have crossed after doing all that research, too.

    It took both of my grandmothers a long time to trust "store-boughten" soap. Both of them made soap the old fashioned way when they were young. Both of them and my mother also saved soap slivers and reformed them into new bars until the day they died. I guess the Depression fostered that kind of thriftiness in lots of folks.

    Thanks for sharing all this information. I look forward to reading Penelope's story. :-)

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  14. I thought the same thing, Tanya. It seems like a lot of yucky stuff goes into making something you're supposed to get clean with. It's all chemistry apparently.
    I like nice smelling soap, too--made by someone else.

  15. I didn't include a lot of what I found during my research, Kathleen. The chemistry part made me bug-eyed.
    Isn't it amazing the effects of the Great Depression had on two generations? My parents and grandparents made do with whatever they had on hand, from scraps of food to flour sacks.
    Thank you for posting about my blog on Google. You are so thoughtful. I appreciate everything you do for us.

  16. Sarah,
    This was an interesting post. I never thought how hard it must have been to make soap in pioneer days. And shocked me what was used in making the lye soap. Also loved the research you shared about the soap in the 2800 B.C.

    And Celia, I'm not a Depression baby, but I'm like your husband and use the slivers of soap. I also rinse out the laundry bottles so I get every bit of detergent. :)

  17. I'm a soap saver, too, least laundry soap. That stuff is so expensive I can't just toss out that last little bit. I confess, however, that I don't make use of the soap slivers from bar soap, with the exception of Kappus's Red Poppy soap. It's the best smelling soap on Earth and shaped like a poppy flower. *sigh* Naturally, it's difficult to find and expensive. I know how those pioneer women felt about yearning for imported French soap (mine is German, but still the same thing.)
    My Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother was in constant movement, always doing something whether it was sewing, quilting, washing clothes, baking, cleaning, or whatever. I imagine that's what these pioneer women were like. My grandmother and her German speaking friends would work on quilts together and visit one another on Sundays exchanging gifts of things they made. That was their entertainment.
    Thank you so much for coming by to read my blog and leave a comment, Diane. I truly appreciate your kindness.

  18. I remember my mom saying my aunt made her own soap but I never saw any. My aunt lived on a farm and she made soap in the fall after they slaughtered hogs. We lived in town and bought Palmolive or Ivory. We did keep a bar of Lava around for my dad to use if his hands were greasy.

  19. Caroline, my grandmother used her lye soap for laundry and she was very particular about her laundry. It was like a neighborhood competition, who could hang the whitest sheets and tee shirts on the line. Grams killed it. She swore by that soap. She did not use lye soap for bathing or washing hands that I can remember. She used Sweetheart soap. I haven't seen that soap around in ages. It smelled great and I can remember it so well. I guess Life Buoy is another soap discontinued, along with Camay (the "soap for beautiful women"). BTW, in the olden days, they did make a soap that contained gritty material to use for washing hands a lot like Lava.
    Thank you for coming by and reading my blog, Caroline.

  20. My dad once made up a batch of lye soap. I can't remember what it had in it except animal fat and lye. It was taupe-colored, had very little scent and was rough on the hands and body.

    I remember wishing we would run out of it so we could get some store bought soap. LOL. But he'd made ton of it.

    My dad was a throwback from a previous generation. He liked to try creating things just to see if he could do it.

  21. Laurean, I had to giggle a bit about your dad making soap. It reminded me of the time my dad, a meteorologist, told me he was going to make a cloud in a jar. Lordy, I was so excited. I pictured this fluffy little cloud floating in the jar like a miniature world. Well, he and my grandfather worked for hours in the potting shed with a jar, some water and a bicycle pump along with God knows what. Finally, all smiles and pride, they came into the kitchen to announce they had accomplished making a cloud in a jar. Mom and I stood with our mouths open in excited anticipation for the unveiling. The "cloud" turned out to be more like fog in a jar. Well, it was a success, but not to my expectations. Where was my miniature cloud?
    I like my soap scented and good to my skin, but I guess if all I could get was homemade lye soap, at least it beats being dirty and stinky.
    Thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate that you dropped by and mentioned some of your family history.

  22. Great information, Sarah! Soap making sure sounds like a lot of work. I don't remember my grandmothers, either one, making soap, but I bet they did when they were younger. They were both farm wives, one in Minnesota and one in Texas.

  23. Late to reading the post, but fascinating. My great grandmother used some of this soap, but I only knew of it when she spoke about it.

    What a process the pioneers went through. I guess what didn't kill you made you stronger.

    Best on this upcoming story. Doris

  24. Lyn, it's kind of funny really; my grandmother "thought" she was a farm wife, but I'd say, maybe not so much. She was, however, a very industrious woman. She was in constant motion. I guess women had to be. They didn't have much in the way of distractions. I don't recall seeing my grandmother read books or spend much time in front of the TV--just always working.

  25. Doris, I do believe the women before 1920 spent a whole lot of time working. I just can't imagine doing all the things they did. My grandmother spent most of her time working. Sundays were her only time to really have some fun when she visited her friends and exchanged things like food or sewing items.
    I never used her lye soap. She talked about how it made her hands raw and that scared me from using it. Like you, I never saw her making it, but we rarely visited her in the fall when I think she made it.
    Thank you for coming, Doris.


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