How to make homemade soap the old-fashioned way

Bars of soap

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How to make homemade soap: Tips from 1908

Homemade soaps can be put to so many good uses on the farm that it is well to save all the fatty scraps that would otherwise be thrown away or wasted.

An economical method for saving these scraps is to have a keg, barrel or old kettle in some sunny, out-of-the-way place, and have it half full of good, strong lye. Into this, drop all scraps or pieces of fatty substance of whatever kind as you have them, stirring every few days; keep covered of nights and rainy days, but let have as much sun as possible.

All raw meats or fat should be baked or fried brown before adding to the lye, in order that it may be acted upon at once, and will not sour or create a bad smell.

In the fall, put this in a large soap kettle and boil for several hours, adding more grease or lye, or water as indicated. If the bones have not been consumed, skim them out, rinse off and throw them away, turning the rinse water back into the kettle.

Lye will consume just enough grease, and no more, and if there should be too much grease, it will rise to the top, and must be skimmed off for another time.

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In making soap, when you think the mixture has boiled long enough, take a spoonful from the kettle and stir into it a spoonful of soft water. If it stirs up quite thick, the soap is good and will keep. If it “thins,” it is not good, and this is caused generally by one of three things: It is either too weak, or there is dirt in it, or the lye is too strong.

Boil it a few hours longer, and then, if it is right, the soap will flow from the stirring stick like thick molasses. But if it remains thin, remove the fire, let cool overnight, and in the morning drain it carefully into another vessel, taking care that no sediment or settling is allowed to pass out with it.

Wash the kettle and return the mixture, and bring to a brisk boil. If the dirt was the trouble, it will now be thick and good; if it is still thin, the lye was probably too strong, and rainwater should be gradually added, a small quantity at a time, until it thickens.

A little common sense and experience will help out in the education of the soap maker.

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Photo by essential02 via Twenty20
Photo by essential02 via Twenty20

How to make homemade soap: Sun soap recipe

To twenty pounds of clear grease, take seventeen pounds of pure white potash; the potash should be in as fine lumps as can be had. Place the potash in the bottom of the soap barrel, which must be water-tight and strongly hooped.

Boil the grease and pour it, boiling hot, over the potash; then add two wooden pailfuls of boiling hot rainwater.

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Dissolve one pound of borax in two quarts of boiling hot water, add to the grease and lye and stir all together thoroughly.

Let stand overnight, and next morning add two pailfuls of cold soft water and stir for half an hour; continue this until a barrel holding thirty-six gallons is filled. In a week’s time, it should be fit for use. The borax can be added to the grease while boiling, and a pound of resin added with it.

Soap made in this manner always “comes,” and is of excellent quality. The grease must be tried out, free from scraps, rinds, bones, or any dirt of any kind. Good soap can not be made of dirty grease.

How to make homemade soap the old-fashioned way 1900s
Making soap in the 1900s, photographed by Clifton Johnson. Side photo: Making lye soap at Ozark Heritage Days, 2005. Photographed by Bryan Culpepper for NPS.

Basic old-timer’s way to make homemade soap

Make of good, hardwood ashes, or potash, a lye strong enough to float an egg, showing a bit of the shell about as large as a ten cent piece out of the lye. Set the vessel (usually an iron kettle) containing the lye in a sunny place, and to each gallon of lye, add one pound of clear, clean grease — tallow, lard, strong butter, or the like — and stir thoroughly, repeating the stirring daily until a good soap results.

Cover the vessel at night and during rainy weather, but let have all the sun possible.

The soap will be of a golden color, and will serve excellently for all laundry or farm purposes.

To clear the grease, have a kettle containing a lye of good strength over the fire; drop into it any material whatever on hand — soup bones, meat rinds, cracklings, drippings, skimming, or any refuse of a fatty nature — and boil until all the fat is extracted. Leave to get cold, skim off all grease, and use as above.

Soaps should not be used for several months after making, or until the lye is thoroughly blended with the other ingredients by age.

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