Article on Making Soap back in the old days... : LUSENET : Country Families : One Thread


This story reflects one axiom of the true pioneer spirit found in an active little lady who intimately knew those times: use everything and don't throw anything away. Anything can be used for something.

The following information and recipes are told by Mabel Mertz (born 1912).

PLEASE NOTE: These soap recipes are lye heavy. Look for the(updated lye requirements in parenthesis).

Basic Instructions As we had no money to buy fat with when I was a girl, we made our own by rendering it when we killed an animal. We cut off the fat, cleaned it up, then cut it up finely with a knife. Then we put it in our big pots and cooked it until all that remained was the cracklings floating in the boiling fat. We drained off as much fat as we could, poured it into pails, and stored it in the root cellar. We used this to make pies, and to cook with. We put the cracklings away for another day when we would make soap out of them.

The cracklings still had a lot of fat in them. In fact, the main reason we cooked the soap was to dissolve, or disintegrate the cracklings into the soap. On the day we made soap, we took the cracklings and put them in our big copper kettle. As they were heating on the stove, we added our lye, sprinkling the crystals on top of the cracklings. Then we added the water and started stirring it. We boiled this mixture until the cracklings disappeared. If there was any little pieces of meat in the cracklings they wouldn't dissolve and we had to take them out with a wooden spoon, or lift them out on the end of our stirring stick.

We continued to stir and boil it, checking it every 20 minutes or so to see if it was done. We did this by taking a spoon full out and pouring it on a plate. We knew it was done when it hardened to the consistency of soft cream cheese after it cooled. Sometimes there was streaks of water running through it. If this happened we knew it needed more water. We poured more water in, boiled it some more, then tried it again. If it ran off the stirring stick like water, we knew it had too much lye and needed more water. We knew it was right when it left a creamy layer on the stick. We didn't have any recipes in the early days when I first learned how to make soap. After a bit of the mixture had cooled, I put it on the end of my tongue. If it's bite was just right I knew I had the lye/fat ratio correct.

When the soap had finished cooking, we poured it out of the kettle, sometimes as much as 4 inches deep into a small galvanized tub. The soap didn't set up really hard immediately.I waited until the next morning to tip the tub upside down, knock the soap out of it, and cut it up into bar sized pieces. Then I sat the bars outside on a board to continue drying. It wasn't too many days before it was ready to use. To store it, we threw it into a box.

Sometimes we wasn't get to the soap making right away and the cracklings went rancid. This wasn't matter, however, as during the soap making process the lye cleaned them right up, and the soap that came from them was just as nice smelling as if we had used fresh cracklings.

Home made soap makes great pre-wash. Get the clothes damp and rub the soap bar on the bad spots. It works as well as the expensive stuff from the store.

I've seen dozens of soap making recipes. But let me tell you, as an old soap making expert, I haven't seen any better soap made than the soap haven't manufactured with the three simple ingredients: fat, lye, and water.

A Little Story Mother once told me a bit of a mean little story about something that happened before I was born. At the time she was in charge of the woman's organization at the church. One of the ladies felt her family didn't have as much money as the rest of them had and continually complained, "If we had as much money as you have, I could be like the rest of you," she said. You must keep in mind that in our little pioneer community, none of us had any money and we were all shabbily dressed! One day after tiring of listening to this woman, Mother asked her to come with her, took her outside to where our buggy was, and pulled out a box from under the buggy seat. Giving her the box filled with home made soap, she said, "Fine, if you want to be like the rest of us, take this home and use it!"


5 lbs cracklings 1 gal soft water 1 can lye (1 lb.) (This recipe lye heavy. Use 10.6 oz. lye) See the above information to see how long to boil it. Remove from heat and stir until thick. Perfume it if you like and pour it into molds if you prefer, in the wash tub it does a good job of cleaning soiled clothes.


9 lbs fat 1/4 lb. borax (optional) 1/4 lb. rosin (this makes the soap softer, but again optional) 2 small cans Gillette Lye (This recipe lye heavy. Use 19 oz.lye) 5 Quarts water Boil together for 2 or 2 1/2 hours Set for three days, then put in tight wood box lined with newspapers.

The two recipes come from Mrs. Mertz's little book she put together for the ladies of the community back in the 50's called Remember Mama's Recipes.

(Editors Note: Be very careful when working with lye. It is very caustic and will burn. Always wear gloves and protective eye gear when working with lye.)

-- Melissa in SE Ohio (, April 02, 2002


Thanks so much for posting this info. What a sweetie you are. I love to read you posts and try to never miss one... Kristean

-- Kristean Thompson (, April 02, 2002.

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