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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Lye Soap

I recently learned that my sister has a bar of lye soap that my grandmother made in a bucket in her basement.  I’ll have to admit that I’m a bit jealous.  After all, I did make my own soap recently.  How did she come to possess such a rare treasure, and what were her plans for it? 

After I got over my jealousy, I began to think about my modern convenient life versus my grandmother’s almost primitive way of living.   I made soap for the fun of it.  She made soap because that was the only way she would get it.  I had lots of questions, so I called my dad and began quizzing him about grandmother’s lye soap.  “I can’t give you much information,” he said.  “Making soap was woman’s work.”  I grunted.  “I don’t mean to be offensive; that’s just how it was back then.”
Here’s all he could tell me:  she made it annually using the leftover fat from butchering hogs, and she used the soap to wash clothes (in her wringer washer).  Those two pieces of information made me marvel at how industrious humans are.  According to soaphistory.net, people have been producing soap for nearly 5000 years.  The earliest recorded proof of soap’s existence dates back to 2800 BC in Ancient Babylon, where soap was made by mixing animal fat and tree ash to form a cleansing product.  How is it that someone would figure out that mixing animal fat with alkaline wooden ashes would create a cleansing agent?  As an obsessive clean freak, I am incredibly thankful for the discovery.

A number of sites shared information about soap use over time – like its use in 1500 BC in Egypt and ancient Germans mixing ashes with animal fat to produce soap.  In the 8th century, soap making was well-known in Italy and Spain. At the same time, France began using olive oil to make soap.  Obviously time went on and more discoveries were made.   The Industrial Revolution changed the way soap was made, and folks started buying it from a catalog or store.  Not my grandmother.  She was born in 1911, and I suspect that she learned how to make it as a young girl.  She continued to make it until the early 1980’s, and she used it until she passed in 1984.  And it still lives today – in a bucket in my sister’s basement. 

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