Laundress-Making Soap

Park VIP Sandy Wells demonstrates the begininng of the soapmaking process.

Most of the recipes you will find today for soapmaking call for "one pound case of lye." Well, unfortunately, on the frontier, there were many times and places when cans of lye were not available. In fact, with lye being made from water and wood ashes, selling cans of lye on the frontier was like selling refrigerators to Eskimos.

First, one must construct an "Ash Drip" or "Ash Hopper." The hopper must be constructed of wood, as lye will eat nearly anything it is put in, except maybe glass or wood. At the bottom of the "V" put in an inch or two of straw or dried hay, so that the ash will not leak out into the drip container.

Ash hopper
Ash Hopper
Fill the hopper as full as possible with layers of ashes and straw. You should have a ceramic or glass jug to catch the lye drippings form the bottom of your hopper. Pour in one or two gallons of water until it just begins to drip into the catch container. The ash hopper should probably be about a twenty-gallon size. The water will come out kind of brown and dirty looking, that's lye. The rule of thumb was to use two pounds of grease (or beef or mutton tallow) for every gallon of lye.
Stirring the lye soap

While stirring constantly in a Dutch oven or some appropriate boiling kettle, boil for 45 minutes or longer, if necessary, until it thickens, like jelly. As it is cooling, at this point, you may wish to add a few or several drops of peppermint oil to give it a pleasant smell. The soap has no unpleasant odor anyway when it has completely cooled; however, adding peppermint oils or other flavors were not uncommon. If a soft soap is desired, simply do not boil it so long, so that it does not set there, and place a plank on top, keeping out the weather. If a hard soap is desired, boil it down until it becomes very thick, then pour out into a shallow wooden box. When it has set up, cut it into bars or blocks with a sharp, thin bladed knife or wire. The time required for the soap to set up may be anywhere from overnight to a week or so longer.

This information was written by park staff.

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Last updated: July 25, 2016

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