Natural Soapmaking (once Soap Naturally)
History of soap making and traditional soapmaking methods
After my mother died this spring, I disposed of her clothes to the Salvation Army but had put off going through her papers. My mother lived with me for the last four years of her life (she had Alzheimers). She was determined never to go to a nursing home. Even as her mind slipped away and her health failed, she never stopped making it clear that she did not plan on going to a nursing home. I am glad to say that she died in her own room (well, her own room in my home--I had to move her up from her own home in Pennsylvania), in her sleep, without any apparent pain. Actually for the last few months of her life, she wasn't even on medication. As the doctor said, she just was running down like a clock and there was really nothing to do about it. (She died a week short of her 91st birthday---no, I am not quite as old as that implies, I was a menopausal baby).
I became interested in making soap while my mother was with me. I knew my grandmother, who died before I was born, had made soap, and I remembered as a child seeing the big white cakes that my mother used for all her washing. But by the time, I asked my mother if my grandmother had left her recipe, my mother was barely remembering her name and mine, let alone if a soap recipe existed. I do remember my mother saying that my grandmother used the big wooden boxes that products came in as molds---I don't think much was wasted in the Breitwieser family. (Yeah, that's where I got the my name. Ida was a traditional name in the family.)
A month or so ago, I finally decided to spend the afternoon going over my mother's papers. My mother was very attached to her mother. Her father died when my mother, the youngest of four children to survive infancy, was only five years old, and my grandmother never remarried. The family was very close. My two uncles quit school at 15 and 16 and ran the butcher shop that my grandfather owned, and my grandmother did all the books, billing, etc. Years after her mother's death, my mother could never hear "The Old Rugged Cross," her mother's favorite hymn, without crying. I discovered (along with my carefully saved, early attempts at art) many bits of information, samples of handwriting, etc. from her mother.
Anyway, tucked in the German Lutheran church bulletin for the Sunday after my grandmother died (which said in its obituary that "all are in sorrow over the passing forth of this Godly Mother"), I found an old yellowed envelope with my grandmother's copperplate writing on it saying "Soap Recipe." I opened it and there was my grandmother's recipe. She says that she has made soap according to this recipe for 47 years, and remembering how my aunt and my mother described my grandmother, I would anticipate that this is very like the recipe that she probably got from her mother, who came from Leipzig, Germany.
I posted this recipe on Soapnuts several weeks ago because somebody there was lamenting that her grandmother had died and left no soaping recipe. But I thought I would send it to you because I know you have posted some soap history stuff to the web site. Feel free to add this if you think it is appropriate. I can certainly speak to the provenance, as it were; it is authentic, and I would anticipate that it is at least 100 years old. I love some of the terms especially, "body warm," "This soap does not waste like store soap," and "Remember, you cannot say to the grease, Be Soap. You have to follow instructions."
I have (very fond) memories of long afternoons spent at a farm, when I was... oh, maybe 4 or 5 years old, where they used to make their own soap.
They used these huge iron pots, blackened by age and smoke, and the soap mixture was kept at a
rolling boil over open camp fires, out in the backyard. This, added to the raw materials (any
fat "scrap" they could find, plus the fat taken off the meat when they butchered their calves,
and "potash", which was basically the ashes from the fireplace) would result in a rather stinky
and greyish-yellow thing, which usually included bits and pieces from the ashes, the fats and
whatever else was flying around while the soap was cooking... ;-)
Surely it was far from being the sophisticated luxurious handmade soap we delight ourselves in!
But... none of my grandmothers ever had any problems with acne or chemical-related rashes...
Here are a few links to sites that show how our forebears made soap in their time. Quite an interesting collection of information to show us modern soapers just what was used then, with what materials they had on hand to do everything from scratch including the lye itself, bear in mind the often labourous tasks they had to endure. All this work that went on behind the scenes makes us glad for modern technology that we now have lye calculators, scales, ready made lye, lovely fancy moulds and so on.