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Soap Lore


History and More


..It's more than what comes out in the wash

  • Soaplike substances were known as early as 2300 B.C., but not for washing--it was used to dress hair or medicate wounds. Cleopatra used essential oils, but no soap. Instead she used a fine white sand, coming clean by abrasion. There was no soap in Rome either. An implement called the strigil was used to scrape off the oils from anointed bodies, and along with the oils, one removed some dirt.
  • Soap's value as a cleanser was recognized by the Arabs and the Turks. The Turks probably introduced soap to Europe when they invaded the Byzantine Empire. Isolated tribes had discovered soap independently. The Vikings made it, and the Celts. The Celts were probably responsible for introducing soap to Britain.
  • Marseilles emerged about the thirteenth century as the first great center of soapmaking and remained an important producer throughout the Middle Ages. Genoa, Venice, and Bari in Italy and Castilla in Spain, like Marseilles, had plenty of olive oil and barilia (a fleshy plant whose ashes were used to make lye). This formulation became standard for the next four to five centuries.
  • Although a lot of soap was being made, it was most often used for laundering. Rumor has it that Henry IV instituted the Order of the Bath, in 1399, to convince noblemen to venture into a water-filled tub at least once in their lives-during the ritual of knighthood. Queen Isabella of Spain boasted about having had only two baths, one when she was bom and one when she married. Only relatively recently has cleanliness become a positive virtue and bathing something to be considered by other than the eccentric. Bathing as a communal affair - Greek, Roman, and Turkish baths, the baths of the Middle Ages--was only incidentally a cleaning process; it was mainly a social occaision. Perfume was used to muffle offending odors.
  • The availability of hot and cold running water and bathtubs that no longer had to be baled out, made soap a common household item. The American Indians had a high regard for bathing, but used saponaceous, (soap like), plants like fuchsia leaves, yucca root, soap bark, bouncing bet, soaproot, and the small agave.
  • To the settlers, making soap was women's work. They stored cooking grease and amimal fat all year for soapmaking day, a once-a-year event that preceded spring cleaning. Ashes from the fireplaces were saved to make lye. The lye was made in a hollowed out wooden log with holes cut through the bottom to drain. The tub was lined with straw, twigs, and sticks and filled with ashes. Rainwater was trickled through to leach out the lye. A ftesh egg was used to determine whether the lye was of proper strength. If it sank slowly, all was well. If it floated, the lye was too strong and would have to be diluted. If it dropped, the lye was too weak, and would be run through the ash again or boiled down.
  • Solid fats had to be rendered, and then boiled and skimmed to rid it of hair, dirt, spices, and otherdebris. Then it was strained through a fine cloth and stirred into the fats. Once begun, the process might last all day. Hopefully it worked. If it separated, one tried again.
  • Homeleached lye made a liquid soap, though hard soaps were occasionally made with special ingredients. Early soap entrepreneurs bought up fat, made soap from it, and sold the soap back to the housewives. They were called Tallow Chandlers and Soap Boilers. Soap and candles were both made with tallow.
  • First peddled door to door; soap eventually was sold from enormous blocks in general stores where you indicated how much you wanted, and that amount would be cut off.
  • In 1806 William Colgate opened up a soapmaking concern, Colgate & Company and became the first great soap manufacturer in this country.
  • About this time, William Procter and James Gamble - a soaper and a candlemaker- set up business together. In 1875 an absent minded employee left his soap mixer on during his lunch break, beating quantities of air into the batch and accidently producing the first floating soap. The foreman wanted the soap reboiled, but management thought they might have something. Procter's son, inspired by the forty fifth psalm- 'All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad" - named the white soap Ivory.
  • The B. J. Johnson Company was makng a soap entirely of vegetable oils - palm and olive. This soap was so popular they renamed theircompany after it-Palmolive.
  • Lever Brothers, an English fim, opened a branch here and created Lifebuoy in 1895. Sold as an antiseptic soap, it didn't do well until they changed its name to Lifebuoy Health Soap and invented the term B.O. Soap ads now fed on fear of social ostracism.
  • Ivory was probably the first product to use slogans in advertising - "It floats! 99 44/100% pure!" Slogans replaced lengthy ads and magazines became the great soap popularizer, a role that radio would eventually claim for its own, (Soap operas).
  • Soon quicksudsing flakes and granulated soaps replaced the cake soap for washing fine fabrics. Lever brought out the first granulated laundry soap aimed at the washing machine business.
  • The introduction of synthetic detergents brings us up to modem day and is responsible for changing the entire face and shape of the soap industry. Scientists found that an acid similar to fatty acid could be made from petroleum chemicals reacted with sulphuric acid. Combined with an alkali similar to lye, this new compound made a synthetic cleaning agent that was even good in hard water.
  • Synthetic detergents replaced soap for all manner of household laundering and cleaning. With synthetic dishwashing detergents, washing machine detergents, shampoos, and household cleansers of all kind, only a small percentage of the soap industry is now involved with our old faithful bar of toilet soap.
  • The standard formula for almost all toilet soaps now made is eighty percent tallow and about twenty percent coconut oil.

How to make and other sundry information

Homemade SOAP

  • Bob and I made soap for the first time after we had butchered our first hog and wanted to make something out of all the lard that we did not intend to use for cooking. We found a recipe on a lye can and some procedural tips in Mother Earth News. Our first attempts were successful so we tried to leach our own lye from ash from our wood stove and did not do as well. I have learned since that was because wood ash is potassium lye, or potash, which yields a soft soap while hard soap is made from Sodium lye, or caustic soda. When our soap from homemade lye didn't harden like that made with comniercial lye we blamed the lye and thought it unsuccessful when we had actually made a substance which is now marketed as soft soap! Any way, we experimented a little and found that you can melt and remelt soap, add things for abrasiveness, creaminess, color, smell and lather. You can make soap out of many different fats, oils or combination of same but the recipe I will give you here is the basic, lard and lye recipe that we began with so long ago.

Mixing the Lye...


  • One can (I 2 ounces) commercial lye (I use "Red Devil Lye" which I buy at King Kullen) mixed in a glass two quart canning jar with 5 cups cold water. You must add the lye powder to the water very carefully and stir with a wooden spoon. Lye is the most dangerous part of the soap making process and you must take special care with it. The reaction that occurs when you mix lye with water gives off strong fumes and a rapid temperature rise of about 200 degrees! I always put the jar I am using in a stainless tub in case of any possible problem since the day the bottom of the mixing jar cracked with the rapid heat and lye spilled all over me and my kitchen when I picked up the jar! Vinegar is good to keep on hand to neutralize lye if it should splatter onto skin or other surfaces. Rubber gloves and an apron are also good to wear as lye will burm holes in cloth too. Please take care at this step to avoid possible burns or problems Once the lye has cooled down, I usually leave it over night, you may proceed to the next step.

Gathering molds

  • When your soap is made you will need molds to cure it in. These can be as simple as a shoe box lined with a plastic garbage bag, recycled plastic cookie or ravioli trays. styrofoam meat trays, or expensive plastic candy molds in fancy shapes. Wood, cardboard, plastic are all usable. Do not use aluminum or metal tins as the corrosive lye will react with them.

Choosing the Fat

  • Six pounds of lard, (soft fat), or six pounds of tallow, (hard fat), or a combination of the two can be used. Warm lard and lye solution to following:
  • All lard, 85° / Lye 75°
  • 1/2 tallow 110°/ Lye 85°
  • All tallow 130° / Lye 95°
  • I melt fat in a sauce pot on the stove and warm the lye by setting the glass jar containing the lye in warm to hot water until lye warms to desired temperature. Thermometers should be made of glass, too!

Mixing Ingredients

  • Add the lye to the fat in a glass or stainless bowl by slowly drizzling the lye into the fat and stirring constantly and slowly so that they mix completely. Continue stirring until the spoon, (wooden), can stand up by itself in the thickened mixture. Then pour into molds. If you cover the mold with newspaper, plastic or Styrofoam to keep in the heat the soap will cure more slowly and evenly. After several days remove from molds and allow to cure at room temp for two weeks before using. This gives any free lye time to evaporate and hardens your soap for longer use.
  • By the way, if you unwrap your commercial soap before you store it in the linen closet it will
  • harden, last longer, and give off a pleasant fragrance to your sheets and towels. Good luck!

    Bubbles can be blown by joining your hands to make a circle. Smaller bubbles can be made by making a circle with your thumb and index finger.


  • Our word soap is derived from the Celtic word for soap: saipo. Other soap words:
  • Italian - sapone - Hungarian szappan
  • Turkish - sabun Spanish -jabon
  • Dutch - sepo French - savon

Making it last

  • How long your soap lasts is determined by the degree to which it is subjected to water.

Things to do with soap

  • Blow bubbles
  • Wash fresh mouths
  • Carve it
  • Play tub games
  • Fix sticky drawers
  • Slick water slides
  • Make potpourri
  • Soap sayings
  • soft soap - smooth talk
  • soap operas-so called because soap companies were among the first to recognize the value of that new thing called radio. To get more peoole to listen to ads for their product, they began to broadcast stories with cliffhanger endings. Radio and TV are still businesses--the product is your attention--the show is just the bait to get your attention so that the station can sell it to the advertisers. Bet you thought the show was the product! 
  • soap box derby-racing cars are made out of wooden soap boxes
  • on a soap box-where one stood to make a speech in a public park or streetcorner
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