Yesteryear’s Memories: Making Lye Soap

July 28, 2020

The early settlers of Illinois didn’t have a store on every corner – in fact, at first there were no stores at all. Most of their needs had to be met using the materials at hand. Soap was a great thing to have on the prairie and the means to produce it were readily available. In fact, it was pretty easy to make a batch of good old fashioned lye soap using wood ashes and animal fat.

Farm houses had a lye hopper right outside where they put the ashes from the fireplace and the woodstove. The hardwoods were excellent for making lye but whatever they had would work. A layer of rocks was placed along the bottom and a layer of straw on top of that. Then wood ashes were dumped on top. Every time they got a drink from the well the remainder of the water was thrown on the ashes. Gradually the product dripped out the bottom into a glass or stoneware container. This was sodium hydroxide, or lye. Lye is very caustic and can cause chemical burns. It was then mixed with water and added to hot lard or fat. Stirring and continued cooking for an hour or so made the mixture saponify – or turn into soap. The lye was no longer caustic and actually would make a mild but effective soap. Lye soap was even used for babies’ soft skin.

The ash hopper is seldom seen anymore, but it was an essential piece of equipment for keeping clean and fresh back in the day.