1800s Lye Soap Recipe Calls for One Pig and One Hickory Tree

Did you know?

In the 21st century, “soap” has a broad definition. It could refer to the basic hygienic materials we each consume via our local grocery stores, or it could refer to more luxurious cosmetic goods found in shopping malls and high-end shops, like our favorite Buff City Soap. Soap could be in the form of hand soap, body wash, shampoo, laundry detergent, car-wash soap, dish-washing detergent, or countless other industrial forms.

But in the mid-1800s in West Tennessee, there were no grocery stores or shopping malls or Buff City Soap stores. Obion County was on the edge of civilization, which meant that if the pioneers of that time needed a certain item, they would have to make it themselves. This meant that “soap” was typically a rudimentary homecraft made of materials already on hand. Oddly enough, for an overwhelming majority of pioneers, all that was needed to make soap was a pig and a hickory tree.

Due to the ease of preserving meat in colder temperatures, the optimal time for butchering livestock was in December and January, so soap-making typically occurred in the winter. After a hog had been slaughtered and its palatable parts removed, much of what was left was fatty tissue. This soft tissue could then be boiled down into a substance that we are familiar with – lard! Lard is the pork product used in the production of lye soap.

Another benefit of making soap in the winter is that fresh ashes were often available from a wood stove. If the wood burned was that of a hardwood, like oak or hickory, then the ashes would be placed in an ash hopper, like the one on the porch of the Farmhouse at Discovery Park. The hopper would then be filled with water. As the water percolates through the ashes, it becomes saturated with a soluble compound called sodium hydroxide, and then drips from the channel at the bottom of the hopper and into a collection pail.

Another word for sodium hydroxide is lye – hence lye soap! Lye is extremely basic in solution and can cause serious damage to the skin and eyes. Pioneers were aware of the danger and took what precautions were possible at the time. One way they would confirm that the basicity of the solution was in the optimal range was by floating an egg in the lye water. If the egg sank, it was not basic enough. If the egg floated easily, it was too basic. If the egg bobbed up and down near the surface of the water, it was acceptable. The density and basicity of the solution could be adjusted by adding plain water or allowing water to evaporate.

After acceptable lye has been derived from the ashes, it is mixed with warm lard and stirred continuously for roughly an hour. Only then can it be poured into a mold and allowed to harden for 6 weeks. Chemicals in the lard neutralize the harmful effects of the lye over that time, and sodium carbonate begins to form. This compound is commonly soda ash or washing soda and is the primary constituent of most laundry detergents. After the curing time of 6 weeks has passed, the soap can be cut into bars and safely used on bare skin.

Bars of lye soap can be found throughout the Settlement; notably in the Farmhouse, David Crockett Cabin, and even the Escape Room. Lye soap is often manufactured in the David Crockett Cabin by Discovery Park of America’s historical interpreter, Mike Ramsey, who can also be seen making candles, woven goods and even brooms. To see this process for yourself, visit Discovery Park of America in Union City, Tenn.

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