Soap, a Vital Player in Human History

I frequently visit a living museum near me, as I am a history enthusiast.

You know, one of those museums where buildings from the region are brought in and set up like a village–homes, businesses, and whatever else a village needs is what I’m referring to.  I like many aspects of the museum, including speaking with the interpreters who add great insight into life in the past century and even earlier.


On one such visit, I was able to talk soap with one of the interpreters, who shed light on life on the American frontier in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  Trees were bigger and denser than I can even imagine and had to be cleared before a home could be begun because there was no room to build, otherwise.  Therefore, wood was in great supply.  Not only was it plentiful, but pioneers had to find uses for all the wood they cut to clear enough land for a home and barn, plus room for animals.  Making lye with ashes was just one of the uses for that wood.  The docent explained that a family would get a pig in the spring and let it mature for butchering in the fall.  Pioneers subsequently used every bit of the pig, and much of the fat was used to make soap that the family would use until the next butchering.


Are you envisioning white, hard bars of soap?  If so, your picture is incorrect.  The resulting soap was more of a semi-solid consistency that was kept in a dish hanging by the door so that the family could wash their hands upon entering the cabin.  My assumption then was that the soap was not only used for bathing and hand washing, but also for household cleaning, but it was explained to me that they didn’t bother with using soap; indeed, they were more likely to use a weak lye solution for general cleaning of the floors, hearth, and other such areas.  Of course!  These practical women were not concerned with the beauty of their soap or the lovely skin feel.  No, they just needed to get their hands clean and keep their homes as clean as possible, and they used the easiest, most expedient method.


I left, impressed and amazed at the fortitude of our forefathers and mothers who underwent such hardships to settle the new land.  Even their soap making is impressive.   I am also awed by the long history of soap and how it has played a vital part in cultures for thousands of years, and now, we soapmakers are carrying on in the craft and carrying it forward.


Yes, soap  has evolved and advanced, and most of us are happy that we make soap now, with our access to supplies and information that allows us to create gentle, yet beautiful soap nearly every batch; but, there is something satisfying to feel a part of history, as well.


Until next time, may your days be filled with bubbles and wax.


Beth Byrne


One Response to “Soap, a Vital Player in Human History”
  1. Beth… THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS PERSPECTIVE!!! Especially your comments regarding being “impressed and amazed at the fortitude of our forefathers and mothers.” I think it has been too easy for us as modern soapmakers, to look down on our soapmaking ancestors. Fortitude they indeed had! We have it so easy, so much better off…. we should hold our soapmaking ancestors in deep respect!

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