Colonial Soap Making

Its History and Techniques

by Marietta Ellis, the owner and president of the Soap Factory


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This booklet will provide persons interested in the ways of early American life some information about soap and soap making. Soap making is a homestead skill often forgotten in discussions of colonial days. Soap was of great value in keeping the household a far better place to live and work.


The manufacture of soap by the hard-working colonists from wood ashes and waste fats give testimony to early American self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Soap, an easy item for us to obtain, was produced by boiling wood ash lye and fats together. Soap's desirability and procurement wrote its own pages in the history of early America.


The soap, in use during the years when the United States was a colony of England and then a young republic, was made from potash or pearlashes. This soap, which was potassium based, was generally the only kind made from the first discovery of soap making until the first half of the 19th century. Then the LeBlanc method of obtaining caustic soda, a sodium based alkali, from a brine solution was implemented on the industrial level.


Through out the centuries, there have been other times when people were able to make soap using a form of sodium alkali as is done presently. The Egyptians are thought to have employed local soda deposits for their source of alkali as the Spaniards did during the 8th century. Also people in various coastal regions burned seaweed producing sodium based barillia for their alkali.


But by far the most common soap was made from potash and pearlash. Potash and pearlash are forms of the potassium based alkali present in plant and wood material. Potash and pearlash soaps were used by everyone from the reigning monarchs to the peasant or cottager, who made their own soap from the waste fats and ashes they saved.


Most people who have made soap down thru the centuries had no idea what occurred. They just made soap by trial and error, by having lots of luck, and believing in many superstitions in how to make soap. When people learned that saponification was the reaction that made soap, we will tell you later.


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