Soap Making Takes Three Basic Steps.
1) Making of the wood ash lye.
2) Rendering or cleaning the fats.
3) Mixing the fats and lye solution together and boiling the mixture to make the soap.
First Let's Make The Lye.
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 unintentionally by a rain fall. Ashes were added periodically and water was poured over at intervals to insure a continuous supply of lye. The lye dripped into
a collecting vessel located beneath the hopper.
Now The Fats Are Prepared.
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 called lard.
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 rancid 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.
You can observe this today in your own kitchen. When a stew or casserole containing meat has been put in the refrigerator, you can see the next day the same fat layer the colonists got on the top of their rendering kettle.
Finally The Soap Making Can Begin.
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.
Soft and Hard Soap
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 work 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.
Difficulties in Making Soap
The hardest part was in determining if the lye was of the correct strength, as we have said. In order to learn this, the soap maker floated either a potato or an egg in the lye. If the object floated with a specified amount of its surface above the lye solution, the lye was declared fit for soap making. Most of the colonists felt that lye of the correct strength would float a potato or an egg with an area the size of a ninepence (about the size of a modern quarter) above the surface. To make a weak lye stronger, the solution could either be boiled down more or the lye solution could be poured through a new batch of ashes. To make a solution weaker, water was added.