"As I ended the hog-killing episode with lard which went rancid in the hot days of August and September; and I also said we wasted little, what did we do with the rancid lard? Well, it became one of our main ingredients for making a wonderful commodity called soft lye soap. Making lye soap was a chemical process which seemed wonderful to me, and I looked forward to the day we made it. There probably aren’t many people in the U. S. who have made lye soap, but I am one of them. In recent years, the process has been revived for use in subsistence economies of Third World Countries; and it definitely adds to the hygiene of any one who learns to make and use it.
I do not remember making any batches after we joined Grandpa Richardson, but I do recall seeing Grandma Mary making it before her death. Of course, she had taught my mother how it was done. What you needed were ashes, preferably hickory or oak, which we saved up from our fire place for Soap-making Day; rain water (soft water), which we caught off the eves of the house; and grease (old lard, tallow, or bits left over from hog-killing). We also used an old apple barrel, about two feet in diameter and four feet tall. They were made of soft wood barrel staves, and we could put a bung at its bottom. These barrels were generally given away about Christmas time by grocers who had sold all their apples. This part of the process was to make the lye water. We used a half barrel for catching the lye-water, as it would instantly corrode anything made of tin or aluminum. A ceramic crock would also work as a collector.
We would set soap-making as some Saturday when we were home from school and that week we would prepare the lye water. Say, on the previous Saturday we would line the bottom of the barrel with about two inches of corn shucks, then cover this with a layer of ashes, then add another layer of corn shucks, then more ashes, and repeat this process until we were near the top, with a final layer of shucks to prevent splashing. We then added the rainwater to the top of the barrel until we could see it seeping through the shucks covering the bung hole. We just let it seep out into the collector barrel until we could see how much there was. If not enough, we added more rainwater. We knew what it took to have a washpot full of lye water. Each day when we got home from school, we would take the lye water out of the collecting barrel and put it back into the barrel of shucks and ashes.
By Saturday we had pretty concentrated lye-water, and it would be a dark reddish brown. We put it into a washpot and brought it to a boil. We then added the rancid lard and any other grease we wanted to dispose of. It always looked like my mother added the greases by guess and by God, but there really was a formula, two pounds of grease for one gallon of lye-water. She knew her washpots, I believe, so she knew just the right amount to add. We had generally cut a long stirring pole in the woods for stirring the bubbling mixture from a distance. Any splashes to the eyes were painful indeed. As the water boiled away and the chemical reaction took place, the mixture thickened and became soft lye soap. We let it cool and then ladled it into with long-handled gourds into our storage crocks, neither of which would corrode. We stored our soap in a safe place, near our clothes-washing shed.
Lye soap was powerful stuff and is what is used to get the weathered appearance on blue jeans and overalls which young people prefer. They do not know that this is the process of sanfordizing. Our school overalls were sanfordized each week with soft lye soap. It was also marvelous for cleaning diapers, washing sheets, and taking care of any “overhalls what got peed-upon.” As a hygienic addition to the farm household, it was without peer.
Later we read in our farm journal (put out by the Mississippi Department of Agricuture) how to add something to make the soap harden into bars. I only remember making hard soap once or twice, and I cannot recall what we added. It may have been salt, or salt plus something else.
I once mentioned that our food dish of last resort was lye hominy. Before I leave the subject of lye-water, I want to say that we sometime cleaned out the barrel of shucks and ashes by running some more rain water through the barrel. This would give lye-water less concentrated than that used for making soap. It was quite adequate for soaking dent corn so the tough outer part would soften. We would save a jug or two for that purpose. After soaking, we would wash the corn, and wash it again, and wash it again, but it always tasted of lye to me. I finally learned that I could drown the lye taste if I used enough tomato catsup."
LyeSoap, 27 July