It all started with a little lye.
Lye soap has been around for generations, and is a common household item throughout the world. Before grocery stores, malls, and on-line sales, people made soap at home. One of the long-standing winter season traditions of early settlers was hog killing and lye soap making. Always a creative people, the early settlers used and reused everything, including the ashes from the fireplace. They would save the ashes from their fires for months. When they killed hogs, they saved the left-over fat from trimming the meat. The fat and ashes were used to make soap. Cornbread is more than the finishing touch to a meat and three meal and more than the main ingredient for holiday dressing. Bite into a piece of piping hot buttered cornbread and you are experiencing a culture. There’s nothing more Southern. Want to know about a people, eat their bread!
In pioneer days, commercially produced lye was not available, women made their own in an ash-hopper. There were variations of an ash-hopper. The most common image of an ash hopper is a wooden box in the shape of a V. People also used rectangular wooden boxes or wooden barrels in which a hole was cut in the side near the bottom of the container. A corncob or stopper of some kind was placed in the hole. To serve as a filter, clean gravel was placed in the bottom of the container. It is reported that some people put a layer of straw or small sticks on top of the gravel. A tightly fitting lid was necessary to prevent unwanted elements from getting in the ashes.
Ash-hoppers and Rain Water
When ashes were cleaned out of the fireplace, they were poured in the ash-hopper. Ashes from hardwood was preferred. After an appropriate amount of ashes had been collected with extra set aside and the fat was ready; you could begin making lye. It started by pouring rain water, which had been collected, through the ashes. Remove the cork or corncob which was placed in the hole near the bottom of the container and allow the ash water to drip into a non-reactive (usually glass) container.
The first time through it would not be strong enough. Place the stopper back in the opening, add additional ashes which were set aside, and pour the collected lye water through the ashes. Pour the water over and over through the ashes until it is the desired strength.
Soap making was a unique, delicate process that required the right balance of each of the ingredients that was added to the mixture. If not enough fat and too much lye was added to the mixture then it could potentially burn your skin. Another problem that could occur is
the soap would be a gooey mess, like mashed potatoes, and would not set to form bars.
Using rain water, lye water made in the ash-hopper, and animal fat or lard from killing hogs, the womenfolk made a gooey soap that effectively cleaned everything from pots and pans to little hands. The most difficult part of early soap making was determining if the lye was the correct strength. The lye water was considered to be the correct strength when an egg or potato floated about halfway beneath the surface of the solution. When it floated on top, the solution was too strong. If it sank to the bottom, it was considered too weak.
Trial and Error
The original lye soap worked on a chemical level by breaking the bonds that dirt forms on a surface. But it could also burn if the combination of ingredients contained too much lye. But reducing the amount of lye in the soap reduced the cleaning strength. So, the settler women, learned by trial-and-error. Being wise in the ways of wild herbs, they began adding bits of dried fruit, pinches of herbs, and dried plant material to soften the soap’s effect on the skin.
Batch after batch used different combinations, trying to find the best soap. The most inventive women discovered formulas for soap that delighted their families and were admired by other families. What was once a chore performed out of necessity became a venture done for trade. The results gave birth to a whole new industry that survives today: all-natural soap making.
Egg or Computerized Chart
While our ancestors used a raw egg or potato to determine the amount of lye needed, today specialized charts and computer programs are used to determine the correct proportions of ingredients to us in the soap making process. In addition, accurate scales allow soap makers to measure ingredients by a tenth of an ounce. The results produce a carefully crafted handmade natural soap.
Benefits of Lye Soap
There were and are many benefits to using lye soap, and it is a great option for all natural products to use at home. Listed are a few of the many benefits.
Skin Care- Because of the emollient qualities of lye soap, it is used by people with eczema and psoriasis to relief itching, irritation, and minimize the symptoms.
Sunburn- Using lye soap on the bare skin before going out in the sun minimizes sunburns. Lye soap helps cure inflamed skin if the sunburns already happened. Lather lye soap on the sunburned area and leave it overnight. Repeat until sunburn is gone. Lye soap speeds up the healing process.
Poison Ivy -Washing the affected skin area with lye soap immediately after contact with the poisonous plants may help avoid the reaction altogether. If some time is passed after the contact, the reaction is very likely to happen. To minimize the reaction, wash the area with lye soap as soon as possible, and rinse with water. Repeat washing a few times. Lather lye soap on the affected skin and leave it on until the next wash. Skin reaction will disappear soon.
Insect Bites- Washing the bites with lye soap reliefs itching and swelling almost immediately. Lather lye soap on your bare skin to repel mosquitoes. A bar of lye soap in your kitchen cabinets will keep ants in check.
Hunting- Wash with unscented lye soap to become “invisible” when you go hunting. Lye soap removes human scent and animals become unaware of your presence. Happy hunting!
Now You Tell Me
Aging - Soothing, moisturizing, and antioxidant qualities of lye soap slows down formation of wrinkles and age spots when used daily. Although I never made lye soap, I knew people who did. Why did no one tell me about the anti-aging value?
Sutton General Store has Lye Soap for sale! Sutton Store opens Wednesday- Friday 8:30AM-4PM and Saturday 8:30PM- 5PM.
Historic Granville sites open Wednesday- Friday 11AM-3PM and Saturday 11AM-5PM.