page on history of soap making in british west florida

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Making Soap on an Eighteenth Century British West Florida Farm
Actually, the process of making soap would have been much the same whether that 18th century farm sat on the banks of the Big Black River in Mississippi, the Cumberland in Tennessee, or the Allegheny in Pennsylvania. The process long predated the 18th century and continued as a routine part of farm life well past the middle of the 19th century. In fact, making soap at home does, as a novelty, continue until this day, though the modern soap maker typically uses some prepackaged ingredients. Three things are required for making soap. Lye, fat, and a human being.
Lye is a caustic liquid leached from the ashes of burned vegetable substances. Not the type of vegetable substances that you might find in a modern day garden compost bin. In the case of the 18th-century Mississippi farm, that meant, primarily, tree ash produced in a fireplace. Solidified lye is potash. During the 18th century, potash in its purist form was called Fine American Alkali and was made from the ashes of deciduous trees. I believe this byproduct was also known as pearlash. If anyone out there can confirm or correct that assumption, please do. Potash in its coarser form derived from the ashes of evergreens. Additionally, the more charred wood and coal removed from the ashes, the purer the potash. Both pure potash and coarse potash worked equally well for making soap, and given the abundance of pine trees, we can imagine that Mississippi farms used more coarse than pure potash when making soap. The homemaker collected ashes in a wooden steeper around five feet deep. The steeper was also called an ash hopper or simply a barrel depending on where in the colonies the farm was located. My source tells me that in British West Florida, soap makers referred to the container as a steeper. Regardless of what the farmer called it, the basic design and purpose of the vessel were the same. The steeper contained a false bottom covered with latticework boards and a plugged tap, inserted near its base, through which liquid was drawn. The lattice bottom of the steeper was covered with straw in which a depression was hollowed. The ashes were placed in the hollow and soft water (rain water) poured on top of them. After a couple of days, the tap at the bottom of the steeper was unplugged and the lye, a brownish liquid consisting of water with the dissolved salt from the ashes, drained into a trough from where it flowed into an evaporation pan. Lye made from the ashes of deciduous trees was placed over a fire for roughly twenty-four hours until the salt solidified. The result was fine potash. Evergreen-based lye was left to harden on its own and the result was coarse potash. Potash was removed from the evaporation pan with a mallet and chisel. Once the lye had been drawn from the steeper, more water was added to the ashes inside. When the drawn “lye” could no longer float a potato or an egg, the soap maker knew it was time to add new ashes to the steeper. To make soap, hardened potash (potassium carbonate) was mixed with water. A hot, caustic chemical reaction resulted, creating liquid lye. The first ingredient for the soap was ready.
In the old days, the fat used in making soap routinely came from farm animals. Pork fat is lard, cow fat, tallow. Sheep fat was also used. Cooking grease worked fine, but was probably limited to households where the slaughter of animals did not routinely occur. In the days before refrigeration, cooking grease became rancid after a short time. Even rancid, the grease worked fine in soap making, if the household could stand the smell. Animal fats were first cleaned of all meat tissue, a process called “rendering.” After being slaughtered, the animal’s unused fat was placed outside in a rendering kettle. When soap-making time rolled around, an equal amount of water was added to the fat, and this mixture was then placed on an open fire and boiled until the fat melted. The melted fat was removed from the fire and water equal to the measure prior to boiling was added. This mixture cooled overnight and, by morning, the solidified fats floated on the surface of the solution. The soap maker then separated the “rendered” fat from its impurities, which had sunk to the bottom of the kettle; placed the fat in yet another pot over a fire; and added a measured amount of lye solution to the pot. The amount of lye added was apparently a tricky procedure learned through experience. Stirring constantly, the maker of the soap boiled the mixture six to eight hours until the stir stick could stand in what had become a thick and frothy mass. Another sign of a successful batch of soap was the “taste test.” When placed on the tongue, properly-made soap had no noticeable “bite.” Now, thinking back on the taste of soap I’ve inadvertently allowed into my mouth over the years, what in the world must “improperly” made soap taste like! Soap did fail, and in written letters from the period, writers lament tossing out batches of soap. [Now I ask you, would that be a kick in the butt or what? Six to eight hours on one’s feet (the pot had to be big), stirring that smelly stuff the entire time; struggling all the while, I would imagine, to keep the fire hot enough to boil (the cook would have had to stockpile a lot of wood prior to starting the process); and then have the soap not set up?]
Soap making was a woman’s job and considered one of the hardest on the farm. Its saving grace was that it was done only once, or at most, twice a year. Traditionally, it was a fall chore, done in conjunction with the fall slaughter of animals. Some households made soap in the spring instead of/or in addition to the fall. Springtime soap makers used lye leached from the ashes of the wintertime fireplace as well as stored cooking grease. I imagine the grease kept better if stored outside during the cold winter months. Certainly the homemaker would be ready to use it up once the weather started getting warm. I also imagine that soap-making day was pre-planned and well organized and involved more than one woman, i.e. mother, daughter, grandmother, servant, and slave. A woman making soap would need to be spelled during the process.
Two kinds of soap resulted from the above efforts, soft soap and hard soap. After the fire went out and the viscous mass cooled, a soft, brown jelly formed, which foamed when added to water. The household used this soft soap for bathing and for washing hair, clothing, dishes, and anything else that needed washing. It was typically stored in a wooden barrel and ladled out with a dipper. [Ha! And you thought soft soap {in push down dispensers} was something new, didn’t you?] Rarely made on the farm was hard soap—this is the consistency of bar soap familiar to us today. To make hard soap, the homemaker added salt to the mixture at the end of boiling. Salt, however, was expensive and was more cost effective when fed to livestock or used to preserve food. Hence, soft soap was the soap of choice on the farm. However, tradesmen known as soap boilers did make soap for resale, typically to “city-folk.” [As an aside here, tallow was also a chief ingredient in making candles, and tradesmen who made soap, often made candles. These men were called chandlers.] Soap boilers also made toilet soaps, scented with oils such as lavender and wintergreen. Once salt was added to the mixture, the soap was poured into large wooden frames lined with a damp cloth. Soap was removed from the frame after it cooled and hardened. Tradesmen sold hard soap by the pound, cutting the requested amount from the larger bar. Regardless of whether lye soap was soft or hard, homemakers cured it several months before using it. It was too strong otherwise and could irritate the skin.
The primary sources for this article is Robin Fabel’s The Economy of British West Florida, The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL, 1988. In addition, I explored and made use of The Soap Factory website.

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