SOAPMAKING - Household Crafts and Tips: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students

Household Crafts and Tips: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students (2011)


When we talked about having an article on making soap, I remembered my grandmother saying that she was going to make some to sell at the October Harvest Festival in Dillard, Georgia. I asked Ma if she would mind having an audience. She said she’d be glad to have us, so one day right after school four of us hit it up to Ma’s to watch. I was glad to have someone excited about meeting Ma. I knew she was a great person, and now I had the chance to share my enthusiasm with someone else.

She was all smiles and ready to go when we arrived. After she had added all the ingredients, she let all of us take turns stirring the soap.

Ma thought some of our questions were pretty funny, like when we asked about it being too harsh to wash your skin in. She said she’d be proud to wash in it, and that it gets you as clean as “regular” soap. When we asked about putting perfume in the soap, I thought she’d never stop laughing.

When we left that evening, we not only had some pictures and a reel of tape, but also several bars of homemade soap.


The following photographs show Pearl Martin, Andrea’s grandmother, demonstrating the steps involved in making soap with “store-bought” Red Devil Lye. The captions are actual portions of the tape recording made there.

ILLUSTRATION 1 “You put two pints and a’half a’water and one can lye—Red Devil Lye—in your pot. You got to stir it til this dissolves good; then you got t’add th’grease to it. Then after you add th’grease, you got t’stir it for twenty minutes.

“Lye’s dissolved now. Grease, this is th’grease. You just have water and grease and th’lye. This is breakfast bacon grease. You can have anything. I had a man th’other day offered to give me mutton tallow. You know—to make it out of. I think I’ll take him up. I’ve always used hog grease myself—five or six pounds for this here.”

ILLUSTRATION 2 “This is beginnin’ t’get thick now. Looks a lot like chicken gravy don’t it? I wish this’s a’little darker because homemade soap’s always dark. Well, this is homemade soap, but it’s not like we used t’make it because we used’t’drip th’lye.”

ILLUSTRATION 3 Can you wash your clothes in it? “Yeah, you can. Just take that, y’know, like we used to—we took our clothes and put our soap on ’em and rub’em and boil’em. People don’t do that now. And I ain’t afraid t’wash my hands in it! That there lard kills th’lye.” Why do you stir it so much? “It requires it. It wouldn’t make if you didn’t dissolve it good. You got t’get it thick like jelly, y’know. Y’can’t leave jelly til it gets right.” (L-R: Elizabeth Rickman, Andrea, Emma Jean Buchanan, Mrs. Martin)

ILLUSTRATION 4 Did you ever add perfume to your soap? “I’ll tell you, we never did care. But you know, people nowadays like yourn’s ages, youn’s thinks it’s something terrible, but we never did care. We just had t’old smellin’ lye soap. Now I could put some perfume in this, and it’d just be perfumed up like yourn’s. I’ve got some t’put in it youn’s thinks it’d make it pretty. But we never did care. We always just made it and washed with it and we never thought nothin’ about it. But, of course, I guess lots of people nowadays thinks it’s fancy t’sell it that ways, don’t you guess? I believe I’ll try this just to see—here she breaks up with laughter—reckon it wouldn’t kill it no ways would it? If it’d do anything t’make it puny, you’d hate t’put it in there laughing.

“Youn’s want me t’put perfume in there? I can perfume it up for youn’s if you want. But I’ll tell you; if for me, I like t’smell that. It smells like old times. I’ve washed with homemade soap s’much—it smells like homemade soap.

“Now you’d think that’d get on your hands, but that doesn’t get on your hands at all t’amount t’anything. But ’course now, I wouldn’t want t’comb m’hair or do anything like that. I’d want’a wash a little. But, why you can wash your hair in that! It’ll bring th’ dirt out just as good as anything. You needn’t worry about takin’a’bath in that. It certainly won’t hurt you. I’ve took a’bath in it many a time. If I had’n’a known what lye soap was it’d scare me t’death. You needn’t be scared of that though.

“Well, don’t you guess that’s about enough?” At this point, she leaves the pot. She’ll stir it again in about half an hour, and then pour the thickened mixture into a shallow cake pan to harden overnight. When hard, she’ll cut it into blocks with a paring knife, lift the blocks out of the pan, and put them in a basket for sale later.

ILLUSTRATION 5 “Daisy, when she went t’th’ Fair last year, she got some. She got a’little piece—well, if you was t’cut off a little slice there it’d be about like she got. Her hand was chapped or somethin’, and she got it t’rub on her hands, and she give a quarter for her’n. I told ’em I couldn’t sell that. I cut that in two, I’d hate t’ask a quarter fer’t.

“Well, of course, soap’s about a quarter now. Oscar got six cakes th’other day. It’z a’ dollar and a quarter. That’z nearly twenty-five cents apiece wadn’t it? And them cakes, I measure them t’that, and they a whole lot littler than that. Of course, they act like they nice soaps, you know it does.”

The following excerpts from recent tape-recorded interviews explain the process involved in dripping your own lye.

MRS. PEARL MARTIN: “We’d make soap whenever we got out. People using a fireplace—you had t’clean your fireplace out pretty often, and when y’got’y a gum full, you’s ready t’go drippin’ it off.

“We used t’put th’ ashes in a big wooden gum like that tree there, and it’d be holler. Then we’d drip that—just pour water on it and drip it, and then that’d be lye, y’know. We usually used hickory ashes. It takes a whole big gum full.

“Th’gum’s got t’be way up on somethin’—settin’ up on somethin’—and it’s got t’be up high. And you’ve got t’drip that off and make your soap out of it. If you started that morning, you might get through by dinner; you might drip it and get it made in a day. It ’uz just like water—just poured like water, y’know. That’uz water poured in there, and water come out, except it’uz brown lookin’: y’know. You’d have t’go once in a while and put th’water to it t’get enough. Just let it drip ’til y’have enough t’make your soap with

“When y’make it with that lye you dripped, you’ve got t’keep a fire under it. You’ve got t’boil it—put it in a washpot and build a fire around it and boil it a whole long time because you’ve just got th’lye and th’grease, y’know, and you’ve really got t’boil it t’make it thick. It’s just like jelly, y’know, before it’s soap.

“Then pour’t in a churn, you know, or somethin’other. Anything’s tin rust’es.

“We’d use it ever how we had it. We used t’never have it hard. If you made just a little bunch, y’could get it hard, but if y’made a pretty good bunch, y’couldn’t thicken it s’good.

“And then whenever we got out, we’d have t’make us some again.”

MRS. ALGIE NORTON: “You have t’first build a hopper (ILLUSTRATION 6) with a spout to it—a little trough—and then put planks or boards up sloping again’it, and then y’put ashes in it, and put shucks down—or straw—in th’bottom t’keep th’ashes from goin’ through. An’ pour water on ’em, ’bout a gallon or two at a time ‘til it gets t’drippin’, and you set some kind of a container under th’spout t’catch th’lye.

“Then y’have a big washpot, and put it in that and get it t’boiling good. Put’cha in about ten or fifteen pounds of lard or any kind of grease. Then y’just keep a’pourin’ your lye, lettin’ it boil ’til it thickens down about like syrup, and that’s what they used t’wash with (ILLUSTRATION 7).

ILLUSTRATION 6 A crude ash hopper, lined with paper and filled with hickory ashes, stands ready to work.

ILLUSTRATION 7 This large washpot, containing dripped lye and lard, has been heated to produce a soft soap.

“If y’wanted to, you could put any kind of perfumes or anything in it t’give it a good scent. And y’could take your mutton taller or beef taller if y’wanted to and use it in place of lard, and boil it down hard enough to cut out into blocks.

“Most of th’ time they dug out a trough out of a big log t’keep it, ’cause it’d eat anything up in a year or two if y’didn’t. And pour it in there and cover it up with a plank; and then y’dipped it out when y’wanted t’use it.”

MRS. CARRIE DILLARD GARRISON: “You had t’save your ashes. We always burned hickory wood whenever we could. So when we got ready t’take up th’ ashes, we had a big barrel with both ends out of it, and we had it on a slanted board. We had a trough t’catch th’lye all ready. And we’d wet th’ ashes and put’em in a ash hopper and save’em.

“We usually waited until th’ spring of th’ year t’make our soap, and in th’ meantime, we’d save up all th’ old grease that happened t’accumulate around th’ place—pieces of taller, suet, things that we didn’t eat—and cook that out.

“And then we’d carry th’water—nobody ever had running water in those days—we’d carry th’ water and throw over th’ ashes and drip th’lye. Then we’d put th’grease and lye in a pot and boil it down ’til it got hard; and then we’d use that for soap.

“It sure would clean clothes too. Used t’stir it with a spicewood stick—I believe it was on th’new moon.”

MRS. HARRIET ECHOLS: “We’d strip up these soft corn shucks and put in t’thicken th’soap.

“If they wanted, as they called it, flavored or perfumed soap, they got th’ little heart leaves from th’ woods where we find th’ little brown jugs in th’spring [ginger]—you remember. So that would make th’ flavored soap. They would take out some of this and put it in another vessel and put th’little heart leaves in t’flavor. Just let th’ heart leaves sit in th’soap; and when they cut it out, they pulled th’leaves out. That flavored th’soap—made it smell good.

“We used about two pounds of grease to a gallon of lye.”