Thursday, May 1, 2014

Cleanliness Takes Effort

Almost everything my ancestors needed to keep them and their families alive and well was produced by their own hands. For us today, soap is something we don't think about much. It is easy to obtain from local markets and the price can be minimal. But this was not the case in earlier years--they had to make their own.

The process of making soap has been around for thousands of years, and the ingredients were usually available to my early ancestors. But the making of soap took a great effort. 

A very important ingredient for soap was fat. Women saved fat scraps from the cows and pigs which were butchered. The scraps were put in very large pots, usually in the out of doors, where it was rendered or cooked down in water and a little salt. Then the rendering was strained to remove any impurities.This was time consuming and probably a very smelly process.

Lye is another ingredient essential to making soap. Lye is commonly known as sodium hydroxide and highly caustic. In earlier days our ancestors produced it from the ashes of hardwood trees and water. The ash water then had to be filtered. This was another highly labor intensive process.

To make soap, fat, lye and water were added together in a very large pot. The lye had to be put into the fat and water mixture at the right time and temperature and stirred to a perfect consistency. One wrong step and all would be for nothing. As the mixture was constantly stirred, it began to present folds. Then it could be poured into molds, wrapped in cloth or newspaper and put away in a cool, dark, and dry place to cure for at least four to six weeks. After that time the soap was cut into bars or grated.

Women in those early years took great pride in their soap. The soap had a neutral, clean smell, and the goal was to make the soap as white as possible. The browner the soap, the less respect others had for the soap and for the soap maker. A great deal of expertise went into soap making.

My family was no different from any other as far as their soap making. In fact my mother has a soap story of her own. She vividly remembers that her father was out one day plowing down some weeds around their out buildings. After a short time, he came into their home bringing a medium-sized, lidded, tin box he had inadvertently dug up. Her mother opened the tin and discovered a beautiful, white, uncut soap. 

This was in the 1950s and my mom had never seen anything like this before, but my grandmother certainly recognized it and was very delighted. Grandma grated the soap and used it in her laundry. Even in the 1950s women were very proud of nice, clean laundry drying on their clothes lines. [I suppose we women have been prideful since the beginning of time.]

My mom and her family were then living in the home and on the property which once belonged to her grandparents, and her mother knew the soap must have been made by her mother-in-law Emma Martinsen Anderson. Emma had died in 1938 long before the soap find. But the work of her hands had endured for decades.

Soap seems like such a small thing but very important for hygiene especially before indoor plumbing was invented. Personal cleanliness added to the good health of families, and just like us, we always want keep our families well and happy.


  1. This was fascinating! So much went into making soap. We certainly do have it easier than our ancestors did.

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