02 October 2010

Making Soap New School

Last month, I discovered that my Great-Grandma used to make her own soap.  Dad says that stuff would dry up poison ivy in twenty-four hours!  Yeah, it was that strong.  It shouldn't surprise me that Grandma made her own soap.  After all, in the early 20th century, pretty much every good farm wife made soap for the family, for bathing, laundry and washing dishes.  I'm impressed, though, because not only did Grandma make her own soap, but she also made her own lye.

Still, while this was a common practice a hundred years ago and not terribly remarkable, it's somehow thrilling to me to realize that I've got soapmaking in my family tree, especially a lady I loved and admired a great deal.  When Dad was over at our house a few days after telling me this, I happened to be making a batch of laundry soap in the crockpot.  This is soapmaking new school.  He remembers watching his grandma standing over a black iron pot over an open flame in the yard, stirring the soap endlessly, waiting for it to saponify (become soap).  This would take hours!  Keep in mind, a batch had to bathe all the bodies, all the clothes and all the dishes, and the larger the batch, the longer it takes to "become." 

Now, my soaps won't clear up poison ivy in twenty-four hours, and I have to specially formulate the batch to make it suitable for laundry.  Yes, my laundry soap will get you clean, but it's not nearly as moisturizing as my goat's milk soaps.  So what does "new school" look like?

Lye is bought, not made.  You can make lye by pouring water through ashes, over and over, but this makes a combination of sodium hydroxide (lye) and potassium hydroxide (potash).  I don't have an easy source for ashes, so I just buy my lye over the Internet, or, if I'm out and desperate, at the local hardware store.

Stirring is done by a stick blender, not by hand-stirring with a wooden spoon.  Hand stirring soap can take a few hours at best with some batches.  Stirring with a stick blender takes about five minutes, max.  This spares the arms a lot of agony, plus gets the soapmaker on with life faster.

Soap can cure for longer periods.  Folks like my Great-Grandma didn't have four-to-eight weeks to wait for soap to cure before they could use it.  It needed to be ready right then.

The crock pot has replaced the iron pot (at least in my kitchen).  Instead of adding heat by cooking the soap over an open flame, now we let the crockpot do all the work for us.  It's not quite a matter of turning it on and forgetting about it, but it's close.  My soap can cook in as little as 45 minutes or as long as three hours.  Either way, I'm not stirring it constantly.

So...  For what "old fashioned" thing are you grateful we have modern equivalents now?
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