Soap making in colonial times was an arduous task that exemplified the pioneering spirit of those early American settlers. Colonial soap was made using two key ingredients: lye, which colonists made from the ash of wood fires, and fat, which was the byproduct of butchering and cooking. The colonists used the by-products of everyday life and turned them into a household staple and an economic commodity.
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The craft of making soap dates back to pre-Roman times; the process was first recorded around 2800 BC by the ancient Babylonians who used soap to prepare animal fibers for weaving. Roman physicians began using soap in the treatment of disease in the early half of the second century and it quickly evolved into a staple of personal hygiene and household cleaning.
When England began settling in North America, soap was brought across the ocean by the early colonists. It quickly became apparent to the colonists that the ingredients needed to make soap were in ready supply in the New World and the importation of soap significantly decreased. Eventually, the colonists began exporting potash, a key element in soap making, to England, and it became such a vital export that England banned the colonies from selling potash to any other countries.
Potash was manufactured from wood ash that was sold to the factories by vendors, who collected the by-product from farmers and settlers across the 13 colonies. The sale of wood ash was often the sole source of income for many resourceful colonists who used the money to purchase staples that they could not produce themselves. Soap making became an early key factor in the colonists' independence; it gave the colonies an important economically viable export and reduced their dependency on England by self-producing one of the products needed in everyday life.
Early colonists would produce enough soap to last the entire year, usually in a single soap-making marathon which lasted two to three days. Soap making was done in the spring or fall since it had to be done outside over an open fire. The process consisted of three basic steps: creating lye, rendering fat and the actual making of the soap. Lye was derived from the wood ash through a process called leaching. Wood ash was collected throughout the year and stored in barrels. To leach the lye from the wood ash, colonists poured water over the ashes and collected the brown liquid lye that would slowly seep through the bottom of the ash filled containers. This process could sometimes take up to two days. The next step in the soap making process was rendering the fat. Cooking grease would be collected over the winter or soap making would be timed to coincide with the fall butchering season. The animal fat or grease would be added to a large kettle over an outdoor fire and combined with water. The mixture was brought to a boil and simmered until the fat was thoroughly melted. More water was added and the mixture was allowed to stand overnight. In the morning, the clean rendered fat would be scooped off of the surface of the kettle. In order to make soap, the colonists would combine the lye and rendered fat in a kettle and heat the mixture to a boil. After 6 to 8 hours, a soapy mass formed at the top of kettle which was liquid soap. The soft soap would be stored in barrels and used throughout the year for many things including bathing, washing clothes and household cleaning.
As more people began to settle in cities and towns, a soap making industry was born. Unable to make their own soap due to time and location constraints, colonists turned to manufacturers to provide their personal and household soap. Soap makers added salt to the basic recipe and produced hard soap that was formed into sheets and sold by the pound. Store-bought soap became increasingly popular as manufacturers were able to produce consistently high quality soap at a relatively cheap price. Store-bought soap also came scented with various essential oils such as lavender, violet and sandalwood, which appealed to many people. By the first half of the nineteenth century, the demanding chore of soap making had largely disappeared from American homes.
Today, soap making is a craft and handmade soap is considered a luxury item found in boutiques and craft fairs, but in colonial times, making soap at home was a necessity. By turning what was essentially waste into a household staple, early colonists demonstrated what would become known as American ingenuity and resourcefulness.