Making soap the REALLY old fashioned way

Discussion in 'Beginners Soap Making Forum' started by Sharron, Oct 31, 2019.

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  1. Oct 31, 2019 #1

    Sharron

    Sharron

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    Hi,

    I am new to soap-making and am looking for help from people who have skills making soap the really old fashioned way. Here's my story...

    I am a costumed interpreter at a historic home in Kentucky. We are developing trade skills, and I am able demonstrate hearth cooking, butter-making, etc, but I would like to be able to do something that not everybody can do. Soap-making came to mind.

    I trained with a lady who makes soap for a "pioneer" type venue, but she uses sodium hydroxide flakes and measures everything with digital scales, etc. I can't do that since I am trying to replicate the way soap was made in early Kentucky using rainwater, ash, and lard.

    I have tried soap-making on my own with no scales, etc. I collected hardwood ash and put it in a bucket layered with pebbles and straw. I poured rain and distilled water on the ash and let it drip out slowly over a couple of days. Then I poured it back in the bucket and let it drip out a second time. I did use a pH paper to check the pH, and it looked to be about a 10-11 on the scale. Next, I distilled the lye water over an open fire, boiling about a gallon and a half of lye water down to about 4 cup. I did the egg and potato test, and both floated. The egg had about a quarter size sticking out the top of the lye water.

    Then I melted 2 cups of lard in a pot (I did use the stove) until it was melted and clear. The temperature was about 125*. I heated 3/4 cup lye water to the same temperature, adding about 2 tsp salt into the water to help make the soap harder. I poured the lye into the melted lard and stirred. It took about an hour to come to trace, but it got nice and thick. Then I put it in my mold (I'm still working on building a wooden one), and I'm now waiting for it to get hard. I'm worried it won't.

    I know that most soap made with potash is a softer soap. If that's the case, and the early settlers would have had soft homemade soap, I'm fine to bring that to my interpretation. If they did have hard soap made with potash, I'm not sure how to get that without scales, etc. I know some of my tools are not period correct. I'm working on that as I practice the soap-making. I'm not going to sell this soap. It is strictly for educational and demonstration purposes.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated!



    Sharron
     

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  2. Oct 31, 2019 #2

    KiwiMoose

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    Can't help - but love your work! I went to the Shaker village when I lived in Kentucky : )
     
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  3. Oct 31, 2019 #3

    true blue

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    It'll be interesting to see if anyone here can help you, as we pretty much do everything with sodium/potassium hydroxide and digital scales, too! :) but I'm not quite sure what you need help with considering it seems like you've done your research and pretty well 'know' what you're doing. I think at this point, experience will be your best teacher!

    That being said, we use the the hydroxides and scales to make everything 'safe' to today's standards (no lye-heavy soap). The pioneers (and farmers & other rural folks who lived in the 'east' for hundreds of years) were less concerned with modern safety and more concerned with cleaning power. Have you ever used modern superfatted soap to wash dishes or clothes? It doesn't work too well ... you end up with a light layer of fat (grease) on your dishes, and the same on your clothes (you just don't notice it on your clothes until it builds up over time). Not good. (Funny, how our modern sense of 'clean' is different for our bodies vs objects. Fat left on our skin after washing is 'moisturizing' but left on dishes equates to 'not clean'. lol) The lye-heavy soap the pioneers made cleaned dishes and clothes much better. Of course, it wasn't so good for skin, but they managed. No one died from it, I'll bet. :) So yeah - I firmly believe that a pioneer who ended up with her yearly or semi-yearly batch of soap 'superfatted' ... considered it inferior, as to it's cleaning power.
    On a related, yet similar note, the reason many women in the 'olden days' preferred to use rainwater when washing their hair was because most everyone used well water. Which usually equates to hard water. Not having water softeners then, the rainwater (a natural source of soft water) didn't leave as much soap residue in the hair when washing. Personally, as someone with oily skin, I could also see how the pioneer's lye-heavy soap may also have been nicer for cleaning hair. (Not that ANY soap is good for the hair, but back then, what were the options?) Those same superfat oils that are getting left behind on the dishes, get left behind on the hair too. I know when I used superfatted soap on my hair in the past, it would look about as oily afterwards as before I started. But I have hard well water, too. :)

    Anyway - good luck on your historical soap making methods! I've considered trying it myself for the kicks (and to say I've done it, lol), but it's not high enough on my priority list to make time for it! And it'll be cool to see if anyone here can 'help' you out ... if you're wanting help with anything in particular, you may want ask outright 'cause as I said ... it looks like you're doing great already!
     
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  4. Oct 31, 2019 #4

    Obsidian

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    I can't help with the process but you are correct that the pioneers had soft soft when using potash.
    Generally it was kept in some sort of pot or container and scooped out as needed.
     
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  5. Oct 31, 2019 #5

    Martha

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    I remember reading somewhere (Little House on the Prairie, Farmer Boy maybe) where they mentioned homemade soap as being scoopable.
     
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  6. Nov 1, 2019 #6

    Sharron

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    Thanks! I feel pretty good about what I've done so far, but I am not sure if what I'm doing is correct. There's not a lot of info out there on how to make soap from ashes. Nobody does that anymore. I had heard about the egg test, and it seemed like forever that I boiled that lye water down When the egg floated, I was ecstatic!

    Right now, the historic home where I volunteer has hard lye soap for examples in the hearth kitchen and in balls at the wash basin in the house. I really feel like the soap would have been the soft soap, but unless I have good documentation, I don't want to propose changing it. I was hoping to get a good batch of nice hard soap to show off when we have farm demonstration days, but I'm thinking I'm going to have to change my story to fit how it was and not how we think it was. It's the little things like this that people have forgotten how to do that are fun/frustrating/challenging.

    The soap has to cure in the container for a few days before I can even try to move it. Then it has to sit for about a month for the lye to weaken. I'll keep you posted on how this turns out.
     
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  7. Nov 1, 2019 #7

    BattleGnome

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    I remember a “dear America” book that had a soap making scene and maybe an American Girl book. If it’s American girl then the series I’m thinking of was for Kirsten, a Swedish immigrant. I don’t remember the Dear America book other than my my mom has the collection my sister and I acquired. There should have been at least 3-4 about homesteading/manifest destiny in various parts of the US that may have some ideas or sources to look into.
     
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  8. Nov 1, 2019 #8

    lucycat

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    Have you ever read the book 'Jane Franklin, Book of Ages'? It is a biography of Jane Franklin and her relationship/letters with her brother Benjamin Franklin. It is a great read but Jane was also a soapmaker and there are several references to it in the book. It was a family recipe but I believe her soap had a lot of salt in it. That might solve part of the softness issue. My memory was that it was a color, maybe green. I thought that was also a result of some type of additive.
     
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  9. Nov 1, 2019 #9

    sirtim100

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    I live in Galicia in NW Spain, and when I mention that I make my own soap, people here often talk about how grandmother or great grandmother made soap at home. This region took a long time to reach the 20th century, there were still villages without electrical power in the 70s, for example, and there were (and still are) traditional practices alive and well in a lot of these places.

    From what people tell me, the process was not dissimilar to the one you use, and the raw materials are identical. Galicia is pig country par excellence, so there is a lot of very good quality lard around here. What I'm not so sure about is the lye and where they got that from. As for the process, pure HP, stir and stir until ready. And it was used for everything, personal hygiene, clothes, the lot.

    If you want, I can ask around and see what they tell me about processes, tools, ingredients, etc.

    My fantasy is to make a Celtic soap. Roman writers made rather disparaging mentions of the Gauls and their use of soap to wash themselves. The Romans went more for coating themselves with olive oil and a scrape down with a "strigil". I'd love to make a Gaulish soap.
     
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  10. Nov 2, 2019 #10

    Sharron

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    I would love any help! Thank you for your kind offer. Mostly, I'd like to know proportions of lye water-fat-salt. Also if I am following the basic steps correctly.

    BTW, my great-grandparents were from San Feliu de Guixols on the opposite side of Spain from you. My great-grandfather was a cork maker.
     
  11. Nov 2, 2019 #11

    Michele50

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    A couple of years ago I was interested to see if I too could make soap with hardwood ash. We burn wood to heat our home in the winter so I plenty of it. I didn't do it like you are--the very authentic way--but I did it the quick method. I simmered my hardwood ash in distilled water on my stove until it reduced and I 'thought' it'd be strong enough to make soap. If an egg can float and crown 'x' amount or a fether dissolves in the solution then it is ready. I cannot remember how much crowning I was to look for and it's been two years ago but when I floated the egg it was perfect. I strained the ash from the water using a stocking that I had left over from making tooth fairy wings for my granddaughter. I had no clue as to how much lard to melt so I put 'x' in the pot and melted it (sorry not real technical, huh). I added some of my strained solution and cooked it stirring frequently. Never had anyone in my family or anyone to watch (not even Youtube video) so I wasn't sure what to look for I just knew I had to try it. Well, it made a (what I call) crude soap that I was able to lather in a dirty pot I had in the sink. It was such a small amount and I used it right away and did not put in a mold....lol...it'd have had to have been quite a small mold. It bubbled and was soapy to the feel so I considered it a success.

    I'm excited for you and hope it turns out very well. Keep us updated, please.
     
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  12. Nov 2, 2019 #12

    sirtim100

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    Consider it done :D
     
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  13. Nov 3, 2019 #13

    Martha

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  14. Nov 3, 2019 #14

    Michele50

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    This was a good read, I always have to chuckle when I see material about 'no lye' soaps--impossible. Within this material, I used the "boil method" since it hastens the process, I was too anxious to wait by doing it the time-consuming way. Everything stated about the preference for slightly lye-heavy soap my husband can attest to--he remembers it as a kid, grandma and great-grandma made it. His mom did also but he was young enough to not be able to remember any details when I wanted to give it a shot, nor did his older sister. Those in Africa, saw a brief video b/4 trying this myself, still use this method--ash and water--and I figured that was why their soap is firm enough to keep some shape but soft enough to pinch off a small amount from the bar to wash vs getting the whole piece wet. I guessing anyway. In the video, I could see them doing as stated in Classic Bell's material: adding some of their carbonate ley, stirring the mix over an open fire outside, stirring in more and so on and so forth. Reading this material I now know what to call what I made on my stove--carbonate ley--so thanks. My exhaustive research had lead to what Classic Bell's info said--opted for lye-heavy vs too much oils.

    With no family members old enough to have made this with their mom or grandma I had no idea how much carbonate ley to how much lard; but, then I'm guessing maybe they didn't either. They had to, by experience, know what the mixture looked like b/4 it was ready to check for a small 'zap.' I wish I knew at least that much as I was flying blind. Mine was like a thick liquid of sorts, not firm to keep a shape like that I saw on the video from those in Africa making theirs. I didn't let mine cool though, used it right away, so it could have become a bit solidified had I waited a few days. Still yet, it did not look like what I had seen on that video. The fact that it bubbled and lathered and 'felt' soapy tickled me pink for my first and only attempt. Got my curiosity fed so I haven't made any further attempts.

    Making soap the old pioneer way is intriguing to me! I hope you nail it @Sharron
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2019
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  15. Nov 3, 2019 #15

    lenarenee

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    That’s from SFM’s own DeeAnna! And yes.....she’s knowledgeable! :nodding:
     
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  16. Nov 3, 2019 #16

    Bladesmith

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    Seems like you could salt out the soap so that it didn't matter whether you had too little or too much lye. I'm not a history buff on soap so I'm not sure if they salted it out back in the day. It was definitely used in early production soap making though according to some late 1800's books on the subject.

    I recently made a batch of soap in this way and it is some great soap. I've been meaning to make more with this method but I just haven't had the time lately.

    But essentially you would heat and mix the fats in an excess of lye and water for an extended period of time (until saponification was done) then add salt until the soap begins to float on top. Then you can simply scoop it out. There's a few further steps involved but.. just giving you a general idea. I've only used NaOH for this so am uncertain how wood ash lye would react to this method.

    Anyway, might be something to research or think about.
     
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  17. Nov 4, 2019 #17

    DeeAnna

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    There are about three different methods of making soap that are being discussed here, all in a jumble.

    1. There's the cold or hot process method used by most small-scale soap makers nowadays to make sodium (bar) soaps or potassium (liquid) soaps.

    2. There's the "boil and salt-out" method that was and still is used by small to large scale soap makers usually for making sodium bar soap.

    3. And then there's the "pioneer method" the OP is wanting to use.​

    Method 1 isn't suited for using lye with an unknown strength. The success of the typical cold and hot process methods depends on being able to accurately (a) know the weight of alkali being used and (b) measure the amounts of the fats and know their saponification values.

    We can cheat a little bit nowadays because we don't normally make soap with anonymous kitchen drippings collected over the past year. And we also have a good idea of the sap values of the fats we do use. But we can't accurately measure the amount of alkali in wood ash lye -- we can only get a guesstimate if we limit ourselves to pioneer grade technology. Because we don't have the accuracy required for the usual hot and cold process methods to work well, we have to use a trial-and-error method of soap making -- in other words, methods 2 and 3.

    Method 2 is suited for commercial production of either type of soap -- sodium or potassium -- but is normally used for sodium soap. Accurate measurements of alkali and fat are not as important as with Method 1.

    Method 2 uses a large excess of water and usually depends on the process of salting-out to harvest the finished soap. Salting-out makes the finished soap insoluble in the water by adding salt or alkali to convert the water into a brine (salt solution) or weak alkali solution. Salted-out soap floats on the brine or alkali solution so it can be scooped off and put into molds or containers.

    Only sodium soaps will salt-out efficiently, however. If you salt-out a potassium soap that's dissolved in an excess of water, it's true that some of the potassium soap will convert to sodium soap and that sodium soap will salt out. Quite a bit of the potassium soap will remain in solution, however, and you will lose all that dissolved soap down the drain.

    Maybe people nowadays don't mind losing a bunch of soap down the drain. If you're a tired, hardworking pioneer woman, however, you are NOT going to be interested in wasting resources -- the fat you've saved all year, the alkali you've slowly harvested from ashes, precious salt that might be better used for seasoning and preserving food, the water you have to carry bucket by bucket from the spring, the wood your husband and sons have chopped, and your valuable time -- trying to make a few pretty bars of hard soap. You will want to make as much soap as possible as efficiently as possible.

    Which leads us to Method 3.

    Method 3 is best for making soap using a ley (an old word for lye solution) of unknown concentration and fats of unknown composition. The soap is made with a reasonable minimum amount of water -- not the large excess as is used in Method 2. More water (weak ley) is used in the beginning of saponification and less water (stronger ley) is used near the end. (I can explain why the different lye concentrations are intentionally used, but this is already complicated enough, so I'll leave this alone for now.)

    The ley and fat are added to the kettle gradually - a little fat, a little ley, cook for awhile, add a little fat, and so on. The zap test is used to determine whether the fat is fully saponified or not. If it is but there's fat still to saponify, then repeat the process -- add a little fat, add a little more ley, cook, and so on.

    Once all the fat was used up and the soap remained just slightly zappy after a good long simmer, the soap was done. The soap maker might boil the soap paste a little longer to evaporate more water to thicken it up so it became a firmer paste when cool. The paste was put into containers for use and storage.

    If salt could be spared for soap making, yes, salt could be added to the pasty finished soap to convert some of the potassium soap to sodium soap. That would make the paste more firm, but the soap would never be hard like our bar soap. All of the salt, all of the soap, and all of the water would remain in the finished soap, unlike the salted-out soap you'd make if using Method 2.
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2019
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  18. Nov 4, 2019 #18

    Michele50

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    "Pasty" is a good way of describing what mine looked like. What I made was method 3 of your explanation--add some fat, then some ley, cooked on my stove and then repeat. I saw (in the short video) that ley was being added intermittently as it cooked but I couldn't tell if they were adding more oils so I thought I was actually doing it wrong. I presume the way soap is still made in African villages is how pioneer women made theirs, but with different resources of course.

    I was a bit surprised at the consistency of mine since what I had seen the village women hand-scoop out of their barrels was firmer. After removing the soap it was placed on the barrel lid (also over an open fire) and pounded with a small tree branch and/or their hands. I was wondering if this was done maybe to release air from the soap (??) and maybe 'knead' the soap like one would knead bread dough (??). I think had I cooked mine longer, cooked more water out, it would have been the consistency I expected rather than 'pasty.'

    "Worth your weight in salt" came from the fact that salt was a very precious commodity. Without refrigeration, it was needed to preserve meat from animals killed for their consumption. I'm like you, doubtful it was used to salt-out their soap. I actually thought the salting-out of soap was so that companies could separate the glycerin from their soap and sell it as a separate product.

    "The word “salary” was derived from the word “salt.” Salt was highly valued and its production was legally restricted in ancient times, so it was historically used as a method of trade and currency." https://www.seasalt.com/history-of-salt
     
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  19. Nov 4, 2019 #19

    Martha

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    Here’s another good link that talks about soap making in US colonial times.

    https://www.ehow.com/about_4566250_soap-making-colonial-times.html
    I think the book I was thinking of that mentioned the soft soap was Little Women. One of the characters used the soft (lower quality) soap at home, but used store bought soap (hard bars) at her friend’s house.
     
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  20. Nov 4, 2019 #20

    DeeAnna

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    Remember too that ashes vary in composition, so the resulting soap will vary too.

    If you make soap using ashes from inland woods, your soap will be softer than soap made with ashes of marine or seacoast vegetation.

    Many ancient soap making centers were usually along ocean coastlines, because soap makers could harvest and burn seaweed and other specific plants that were adapted to living in a salty environment. These ashes contained more sodium than ashes from inland woods, so you'd get a firmer soap.

    Also, you want to use ash that's been burned to white, not softwood ashes and not black ashes. Softwood ash contains less carbonate so the ley will not be as strong, so hardwood ashes are preferred. Black ash contains more impurities.
     
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