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Adventures in Traditional Soap-Making

A Brief History of Traditional Soap-Making

traditional soap-making

Pannikin of soft-soap on chair at left

Then Almanzo was left alone in the kitchen, to take his bath.  His clean underwear was hanging on a chair-back to air and warm.  The wash-cloth and towel and the small wooden pannikin of soft-soap were on another chain.  He brought another washtub from the woodshed and put it on the floor in front of the open oven-door.

He took off his waist and one pair of socks and his pants.  Then he dipped some warm water from the tub on the stove into the tub on the floor.  He took off his other pair of socks and his underwear, and his bare skin felt good in the heat from the oven.  He toasted in the heat, and he thought he might just put on his clean underwear and not take a bath at all.  But Mother would look, when he went in the dining-room.

So he stepped in the water.  It covered his feet.  With his fingers he dug some of the brown, slimy soft-soap from the pannikin and smeared it on the washcloth.  Then he scrubbed himself well all over.

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Chapter 7 Saturday Night)

That “soft-soap” is what we are after.  I’ve called it “man soap,” or “kick ass soap.”  The traditional methods of making soft-soap go back literally thousands of years.  The basic process involves leaching ashes in water to produce “lye-water,” and then mixing the lye-water with a fat, or fats, usually over heat, to “saponify” the fats.  In Almanzo’s case the soft-soap would probably have been made from cooking and heating-fire ashes, saved from the previous winter, and left-over fats from cooking.  Soap-making was springtime work, and it was work, without question, and usually the responsibility of the woman of the house.  In a perfect world, the resulting product contains neither fat nor lye, but only soap, the two ingredients having been totally consumed in the saponification process.  I’ve called it “man soap,” or “kick ass soap.”  It’s real, it’s natural, it was traditionally made from waste products, and it does the job.  And, the devil is indeed in the details; more on that to come in this post.

Traditional Soap-Making Resources – Historical

I won’t go into great detail here, but I will provide links to additional resources.  The history of soap-making goes back at least as far as 2200 B.C., and by 800 A.D. there were soap-making factories.  In more recent times there are numerous accounts on-line of people having used wood ashes and water to wash their hair.  “Why,” you might ask?  Well, as previously mentioned, water leaches alkaline chemicals from wood ashes, potassium carbonate in particular, forming a mild lye solution, more or less instantly.  This lye-water then saponifies oils in the hair, creating soap, on contact.  Put that in the “whodathunkit” file! As for soap-making closer to home, in colonial times, the best resource I have found is, “19th CENTURY SOAP MAKING- ITS HISTORY AND TECHNIQUES.”  Interestingly too, the first U.S. patent, signed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph in 1790, was issued to Samuel Hopkins for the making of potash and pearlash. “Potash was the designation of a crude form of potassium carbonate derived as residue from the repeated boiling of wood ashes in a cauldron (or in 18th century parlance, a pot—hence, thus the name “potash”). Potash or the more refined pearlash may rightly be thought of as America’s first industrial chemical because this substance was an essential ingredient in the making of soap, glass and gun-powder.

Traditional Soap-Making and the Devil

The Problem in Traditional Soap-Making

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Wood ashes, water, and fat.  What could go wrong?  Plenty, as it turns out.  The Devil is in the lye-making.  Fats are fats; saponification tables for various and sundry plant and animal fats are widely available on the internet.  The saponification tables account for the type of lye used, sodium hydroxide (NaOH), the usual for handcrafted soaps these days, or potassium hydroxide (KOH), the traditional, from wood ashes.

Throughout history, soap was made by rendering available animal fats and adding natural lye (leached from ashes) to make soap. Without the scientific data readily available today, the soap makers of yesteryear approximated the amount of lye to add to the fats. If not enough lye was added, with too many fats remaining, the mixture would separate, not be useable, and the effort and time of preparation would be wasted. If too much lye was added, some extra lye would remain in the soap but the soap could be used. Therefore, the preference was to add extra lye to ensure the soap would be useable. However, the extra lye remaining in the bar of soap made it unpleasant to use because it would often irritate or burn the skin.

Soap recipe calculators are also available on the internet.  It’s not the fats, and it’s not either the recipe formulation that is the problem.  The problem is, qualifying and quantifying what is actually in the lye water; what is “it,” and how much of “it,” is in the lye water, by weight; those are the difficult questions.  Finding answers to those questions is the solution to the problem.

The Secret to Solving the Traditional Soap-Making Problem

As is always the case, what we know is far, far less than what we know we don’t know (known unknowns), and what we don’t know that we don’t know (unknown unknowns).  Not to mention, as Donald Rumsfeld so famously put it, the universe of “unknown knowns,” which is to say, the stuff we “know” but poorly understand, or that just ain’t so.  “Back in the day,” the colonists used a couple of means, or variations of these means, to establish if the lye water was fit for soap-making.  One was to float an egg in the lye water; if there was a nickle to quarter-sized surface of the egg exposed, they reckoned it was ready, a crude measure of the specific gravity of the solution.  Or, they might put a feather in the lye water; if the feather was dissolved the lye water was a “go.”  Either method is insufficient to the task of avoiding the “miss” in a traditional process that was decidedly “hit and miss.”  A good solid attempt was made though, at establishing how much lye was in the lye water.  We tried both measurements of specific gravity, and measuring the pH of the lye water; neither produced satisfactory results.  It took me six recipes and four experiments to finally and successfully make soap paste, and that only after I had weighed the fat the was not consumed in the previous experiment, which was fully half of what I had tried to saponify.  In other words, the measure of specific gravity overestimated by a factor of two, the amount of lye in the lye water.  That’s no way to produce a product for sale; too slow, too inefficient, too costly, too hit and miss.  I documented the successful experiment, which brought several unknown unknowns into the space of known unknowns; now we can deal with them.  The “soap paste” is the soft-soap used by Almanzo.

Next Steps in Traditional Soap-Making – Chemistry, Dammit!

Solving the problem; exorcising the soap-making demons.  Involves chemistry.  My least favorite subject, ever.  I’m sure my high school teacher, Roy Rissky, would find this an all too fitting challenge for me.  I took one semester of chemistry at South Dakota State University, and all I remember is that I had a “hot” lab partner.  And she had a HP41 calculator, which was all the rage at the time.  But, chemistry is the secret to solving the problem.

In my most popular YouTube video to date, I make lye water the old fashioned way.  I have received a lot of comments, helpful, informative, thought-provoking comments, on this video.

Here is an example:

…on the video there is a note saying you recommended using rain water…I mean tap water and it only has around a 99.9 purity for every 10 liters there is a gram of something
Rain is 98% purity the other 2% being dissolved gases and the most common on the rain of those gases is CO2 that reacts with the water to make carbonic acid
CO2+H2O—>H2CO3(carbonic acid)
Then the carbonic acid reacts with the Potassium Hydroxide to make a lower yield
2KOH+H2CO3—>K2CO3(Potassium Carbonate)+2H2O
KOH+H2CO3–>KHCO3(Potassium Bicarbonate)+H2O

Okay, that just makes me want to tear my hair out.  But it gets worse; another viewer opines, “I just wanted to say, that what you have here is definitely not KOH but instead K2CO3.

So, as it turns out, I’m not even making what I thought I was making, potassium hydroxide (KOH), instead I’m making, mostly, hopefully, potassium carbonate (K2CO3).

Getting to a Commercially Viable Traditional Soap

I am setting up for Experiment 005; my recipe is good, I just need to answer the questions I posed above, qualifying and quantifying, the “what” and the “how much,” of the lye water constituents.  I’m having to re-learn, or more accurately “know” for the first time, a whole new vocabulary, with words like titration, analyte, titrand, titrant, and stoichiometry.  Keep your eyes on this space, and I’ll let you know how it goes.  The goal for this year is to be at least beta-testing some soft-soap; and that is probably a stretch-goal.  Ultimately, we need to tame this traditional soap-making process, making it reliable and repeatable.  Only then can we offer you a soap that a) does no harm, b) is real, natural, and made from products that would otherwise go to waste, and c) does the job.

All the best, and kind regards,


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