In colonial times and on the frontier the soap used for the laundry was also used for baths and for daily “washing up.” It was the result of a relatively simple formula, and was almost always made by the women of the family.
The basic ingredient was lye. In the early days lye was made by salvaging ashes from the fireplace or outside cooking fires, and then pouring water over the ashes. The chemical leached from the ashes was lye. The liquid was poured over the ashes again and again until it was deemed sufficiently strong. In the mid-1800s commercial products became available, and one of the better-known was called Red Devil Lye.
About five quarts of water was put in a large cast iron pot, then about a quart of the homemade lye, or two cans of Red Devil Lye, was added, stirring as needed. About ten pounds of rendered hog fat was added, and the whole mixture was then boiled and stirred until it had the consistency of tomato puree. After about twenty minutes approximately three quarters of the mixture was poured off as “soft soap,” and would be used as laundry soap.
The remainder was allowed to continue boiling until very thick. The women frequently tested the consistency of the mixture much as they would when making jelly; letting it pour from the wooden spoon. When it was judged “ready,” the remaining contents of the pot was poured into shallow pans and allowed to cool overnight. By morning it could be cut into blocks for future use as hand soap. The soft laundry soap was stored in a wooden bucket because over time the remaining lye in the soap would eat through a metal container.
One might think that this type of soap would be too harsh for normal household use, but by adding a little extra hog fat, or lard, it could be used for anything, even washing your hair.
On the other hand, I think the “good old days” are now. I prefer store-bought hand soap and Head & Shoulders® shampoo. How about you? -Ed.