The other day I was discussing the plans for the November 8, 2014 commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Liberty with Kim Shepherd of Psychedelic Soap Co.and what Living History displays would be there around the Little Red School House that Saturday. In telling her of the Stockdale Ranger’s plans for demonstrating camp life and so forth it dawned on me that we have pretty much ignored the areas of life considered “women’s work” in the 1800s. Being an accomplished homeschooler as well as soap entrepreneur, Kim asked me if anyone would be demonstrating old fashioned soap making and, Lord love her, volunteered to work on pulling a demonstration together. I didn’t say no but I didn’t say yes as the wheels in my fuzzy brain were attempting to picture what that would entail!!!
When I got home, I got on Google and looked up Pioneer Soap Making and sure enough it was as rough looking as I was imagining! Large cast iron pots over an open fire filled with lye and lard requiring constant stirring! Oh and don’t forget the women were in long full skirts and aprons so the danger of catching on fire was very real! There was also a great deal of work required to obtain the ingredients prior to actually making the soap.
Three Steps to Old Fashioned Soap Making
First step- Obtain the Lye
Soap making starts with potash or pearlash that is obtained from hardwood ashes. The pioneers cleaned out the home’s fireplaces and collected the ashes for soap making day. In order to leach the lye from the ashes, the ashes were placed either in a bottomless barrel set on a stone slab with groove cut in thestone and a lip for drainage cut from the groove to the side of the stone. A vessel was placed under the stone to collect the brown liquid that was leached when water was poured over the ashes in the barrel. Another version of the Leaching Barrel appears in the drawing.
Second Step- Obtain the Fat
Soap was usually made in the fall because it was such hot work and because that was the time of year for hog killings. The hog killings provided an abundance of waste fat which was then put into the pot with an equal amount of water to render the fat. Rendering removes all traces of meat leaving only the fat. Rendering the fat was a nasty smelling process and done outside at all costs!
Third Step- Put the the Lye and the Fat Together
When these two jobs were completed, the resulting liquids –brown lye and liquid fat- were placed in the large iron caldron over the fire and boiled and stirred until they became thick frothy mass. Knowing how long to boil the mixture was also very difficult. One source states the mixture was boiled until a small amount of the foam placed on the tongue gave no discernible “bite”. When this was accomplished the fire was put out and the mixture allowed to cool. The resulting soap was a brown gel. This was placed into a vessel of the appropriate size and dipped out as needed. To produce hard or bar soap table salt would be added over the top of the brown mixture at the end of processing. Salt was extremely expensive in colonial days and not to be wasted making hard soap when soft worked just as well.
Not every homesteading family made its own soap as it was very tricky to get the lye the right strength and the right balance of fat to lye. More difficult still was achieving the correct strength in the lye. There was a great deal of superstition surrounding soap making. The correct phase of the moon and tides was even brought into play by some. If you didn’t have the measurements correct you ended up with a great mess. One Pennsylvania Dutch recipe warns that only a sassafras limb is suitable for stirring and that all stirring must be in the same direction to achieve success!
Soap was made and sold commercially as early as in 1609 in Jamestown, VA. These soap makers appear to have been men and were called soapboilers. Most had other professions as well. The soap made by soapboilers did have the salt added and was poured in to large forms to make large blocks of soap. The shop keeper cut off the amount of soap the customer requested. It was sold by the pound. Small pre-wrapped bars of soap did not come into being until the mid 1800s. An interesting new fact I ran across was that ashes were considered legal tender by some shop keepers.
This sign tells the tale- Maybe C.Stuck was a soapboiler?
Soap making was considered one of the most difficult jobs on the farm or homestead in the 19th century and it was as a rule left to the women of the family to do. Modern soap making is a far cry from the back breaking job it was then. I have assisted in Kim her Psychedelic Soap kitchen and while far from a no-brainer or what I would term easy, it wasn’t back breaking. She has a recipe and precision scale to make sure the measurements are exactly what they should be so each wonderful batch turns out nicely. The art of soap making comes in adding the colors and scents that make the soap so irresistible. Weather and cooking time can still cause bumps in the proverbial road but for the most part it is smooth sailing in the Psychedelic Soap Kitchen.
You may be wondering if we will have a soap maker at the event on November 8, 2014 I would like to tell you we will but in truth, I don’t yet know. We are working toward that so keep checking this blog and/or the Face Book Page to see if we work it out.
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