A fond memory of my childhood, was my mother making soap in a big fifty gallon, heavy, metal, barrel. I remember the smell of the fire burning, the feel of the fresh soap on my hands, the sting of lye dust on my arms and the concern of my mother as she made the soap.
Making homemade soap on our farm was an annual event and it required the whole day to
complete the first part of the process. We made soap in the late summer when the beef was slaughtered and Mom could get beef fat, but also, the days were still warm and sunny and the soap dried out. For me it was a fun and exciting day and I looked forward to the soap making process.
Mom, however, felt very differently. This was a difficult day for her and she was always glad when the event was over. It was hard work to carry the many buckets of water from the house and the dozen or more trips as she walked to the site in the back of the house, took a toll on her legs. Her varicose veined legs ached and hurt by the time the soap was cooked and was dumped into tubs. As we, children, grew big enough, we carried the water and cut-down on some of her
work and this was a great help to her.
Soap making was not a luxury we did for pleasure or a hobby we pursued for fun and adventure. Soap making was a necessity of life. The stringent soap was used in the electric
wringer washing machine in doing the family wash. The cleaning ability of the soap was well known and dirt and stains vanished leaving clean smelling, white, delightful clothes. That soap could remove the smokey residue left on the walls and ceiling of the house from the wood burning stoves like no other cleaner. We also put a bar of soap in a scrub bucket and scrubbed the linoleum floors and the boards of the wooden porch. The boards were a creamy white in color when we finished their scouring process.
In addition to the hard work, was the stress of having a successful outcome was always there. My Mother never had a failure in the soap making, but the possibility was there just the same. The soap needed to be cooked just enough to set up and hold its shape, but not so much that the soap was burned. Cooking let liquid vaporize into the air and the soap thickened enough to form a solid soft mass in the shape of the tin tubs or other containers it was poured into.
The process began with collecting enough beef tallow for the recipe. Mom cleaned the leaf fat from the intestines of slaughtered beef and washed it. She also extracted the solid tallow fat that clings to the back of the animal along the back bone on the inside of the beef cavity. After the fat was saved and all collected, she weighed the tallow on the big scales in the granary to determine the amount of lye needed, and how large the batch of soap would be. A ten-can batch was a full size barrel of soap, in fact, so large care had to be taken to keep the contents of the barrel from boiling over during the cooking operation.
Soap making was started in the morning because the soap required long hours of cooking. In fact, the barrel and rocks were set up the night before the big day so we got an early start. The barrel was positioned on top of three rocks that were placed in a circular pattern on the ground. The rocks lifted the barrel up from the ground and created a twelve-inch fire space under the barrel. To begin the procedure, the total weighed fat, all of the cans of lie, and one bucket of water were dumped into the bottom of the barrel. This was a strange combination for making soap, but it really worked.
The ingredients had to be measured precisely to insure a quality soap. There was four pounds of tallow to one can of lye and three gallons of water to one recipe. The fire was started under the barrel and we were well on our way.
Soon the fire had the water boiling and the tallow all melted. Then the carrying of buckets of water from the house began. Before many hours, the barrel was full of soap and all this time there had been a small fire under the barrel to keep the soap boiling and cooking. We stirred the soap with a broom stick that Mom had and saved just for soap making. Toward late after noon, the soap takes on a golden, honey-candy, color and as Mom dipped the broom stick into the
contents of the barrel and lifted the stick up in the air, soap dripped in thick clumps and strings from the stick.
At this point, Mom determined the soap was done, and Dad put on his white canvas work gloves and tipped the barrel to one side. We removed one of the rocks and he carefully tilted the barrel so the soap could run into number three tin tubs. This was a dangerous time and care had to be taken so none of the hot soap slopped onto us. He used a gunny sack to hold the hot bottom rim of the barrel and tip out the last bit of soap. We got about three and a half tub of soap.
The next morning, after the soap had set up it was dumped upside down on an improvised table of planks on saw horses. The table was in full sun so the soap could dry out.
At this stage Mom cut the soap into chunks with a large butcher knife. She took into consideration the shrinkage of the chunks as the soap dried when she did the cutting. The soap pieces would lose about half their size in the drying process. We, children, liked to rub our hands over the wet, straight, slick, slabs of soap. It felt smooth and moist and shiny. But, to poke a hole in the soft substance with our fingers brought loud disapproval from our mother. Even soap
making had to look nice and have an attractive finished product. Hmmmmmm, I guess that is where I got that trait “things have to look nice” from.
Care needed to be taken to keep the soap from getting wet during the drying procedure. Should a summer thunder storm arrive, we ran fast to cover the laid out soap pieces with a large tarp.
After the soap had become sufficiently shrunk and was totally dry, we stored it in seamless sacks or gunny sacks for future use. Soap making is a rich heritage in my life and I am grateful to have been a part of it. In fact, I tried making soap a few years before Mother died, so she could give her expert advice. I even tried a batch of soap on my own. I am pleased to report the soap turned out very well. We used it in our home in cleaning. It was a fun pioneer experience and I intend to do it some more. I even found a source of beef tallow I can use. I can get the tallow at the slaughter house where we have our animals taken care of.
Life is so great and good! I am glad to be alive!