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Soap Making

Soap making was a long, hot, smelly job. Fat from cattle, sheep, and pigs was melted down into tallow and put into iron pots. Water was poured through wood ashes from fires to make a caustic liquid called lye. The liquid lye and melted fat were boiled in the iron kettles. As it cooled, the soft soap floated to the top and was skimmed off and poured into large wooden molds. It was cut into bars after it hardened. The new soap was stored on shelves and turned occasionally until it was thoroughly dried or “cured” and then was ready to be used. Today the process is much safer and easier and can be made from many types of products. With the help of an adult, try making soap.

Use these precautions when making soap:

  • Cover your work area with newspapers.
  • Use stainless steel, iron, glass or enameled pots. Do not use aluminum pots; they are ruined by lye.
  • Use lye flakes (sometimes called caustic soda), the type of lye used as a drain cleaner.
  • Do not spill the lye; it can cause burns! If the lye touches your skin, wash the skin immediately with cold water and rinse with vinegar or lemon juice. Just to be safe, wear rubber gloves.
Activity Directions
1. In a double boiler, melt 2 ½ pounds (1.134kg) of tallow (animal fat).
2. In a separate pot, mix ¾ pint (375 mL) water into ½ of a 13-ounce (368.5-gram) can of lye.
3. Remove the double boiler from the stove. Slowly pour the lye mixture into the melted tallow. Stir very steadily, not too fast and not too slowly. Keep mixing until the liquid turns thick and has the consistency of syrup, at least 15 minutes. If it gets lumpy, put the pot over the lowest heat and keep stirring until it becomes soft soap.
4. Pour it into a metal cookie tin, shallow pan, or shoe box that has been lined with wax paper or plastic wrap. Let the mixture harden for at least 24 hours. Cut it into soap bars. It will still be soft, but after three to four more weeks, it will be ready to use.