Soap Making of Yesteryear

Lye Cover

Have you ever wondered what soap making was like in the past?

Just how did great grandma make soap anyway?

We can gather some clues by looking at old lye booklets.

Lewis Lye – The Truth About a Lye

The picture above is the front cover of the booklet, The Truth About a Lye. This particular edition was published in 1933 by the Lewis Lye company. Note that this is the New 21st Revised Edition! For many decades it was common practice for informational booklets such as this, to be included with every purchase of lye, which could easily be found in local grocery stores.

Back in the day, soap making was a common household chore. Yes, chore. The idea of soap making being anything close to the art form it is today, was way off in the distant future.

Making soap was just one of those things that you did and it served a very practical purpose. Every family needed soap; and that soap was used for everything… hand washing, bathing, for shampoo, dish washing, etc.

A full 20% of this booklet is dedicated to soap making. The rest of the booklet covers the following categories: Farms, Food Product Uses and Household Uses. As you can see, lye had a wide variety of different uses.

Preparation of the Fats

At the beginning of the soap making section it states, The First Step in Soap Making is to Properly Prepare the Fat. Then it gives instructions on how to do just that. Tallow (beef fat) or Lard (pig fat) were the common, readily accessible fats of the day that was used to make soap, but fat needs to be rendered in order to obtain the tallow or lard. The rendering is simply a process of gradually boiling the fat down, then the tallow or lard rises to the top. Similar to when you boil chicken, then set the pot of broth aside, how a layer forms on the top.

Basic Recipe and Variations

Here is the recipe that is included in the booklet.


1 can Lewis Lye (each container held 13 oz.)

2 1/2 pts. cold water

6 lbs. fat (tallow, lard or combinations of tallow and lard)


Along with this basic recipe, over a dozen recipe variations are included.

Here’s the list: All Tallow Soap, Castor Oil Soap, Cocoanut Oil Soap (no typo, that’s how they spelled it), Cottonseed Oil Soap, Fish Oil Soap, Glycerine Soap, Imitation Castile Soap, Linseed Oil Soap, Olive Oil Soap, Sulphur Soap, Tar Soap, Lewis’ Abrasive Soap, Lewis’ Abrasive Soap Paste, Soft Soap, Liquid Soap, Soap Flakes or Chips and Soap Powder or Washing Powder.

Interesting, yes? It makes me wonder how many people experimented with the different variations!

Back during this time period, more people lived in the rural areas than in the cities. Each family naturally did many things in order to survive. People kept their own livestock for meat, grew vegetables, made their clothes. Today we call that being do-it-yourselfers, back then it was simply the way it was.

Many people in the country kept hogs and the annual hog butchering would happen each fall. The annual soap making would happen soon thereafter. The idea was to make soap once and make enough to last the whole year. The soap was made outside in a big kettle over an open fire.

In the 1940’s more and more people began leaving the family farms to find work in the cities. The farm women carried their tradition of soap making with them. Instead of obtaining lard after the annual hog butchering, now bacon grease was saved until enough was had to make soap. This is something I saw firsthand. Everytime my mom made bacon, she would pour the grease into the tin coffee can that lived by the side of the stove.

Soap making has indeed come a long way. Personally I am glad that it is a craft that has endured.

If you are interested in obtaining old copies of lye booklets, check out online sale sites like eBay.

For a modern take on the craft, feel free to check out my website or to buy Creative Soap Making, my how-to on this very unique craft.


















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