Museum Talk

Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Lye soap on display at Buffalo Island Museum.

The Buffalo Island Museum wishes to preserve the history of this area for the past, present and future generations. We have talked about the antique washing machine, the old iron wash pot and the rub board. In all of these articles, we mentioned lye soap. It is a part of our Buffalo Island history and deserves an article of its own. The museum has several bars of the lye soap and even has a recipe for making it.

The first evidence we have of soap is around 2800 B.C. The first soapmakers were the Babylonians and Egyptians. They mixed animal fat, lye and salt. Soap wasn't used for bathing and personal hygiene, but for cleaning cooking utensils and for the treatment of skin diseases.

In the beginning, soap making was an exclusive technique. The demand for soap was high and was very expensive. At the beginning of the 7th century, Arabic chemists were the first to make soap from oils such as olive oil and lye. It wasn't until the late 1700s and early 1800s that soap was made from glycerin, fats and acid. Making soap became less expensive. It was the mid 19th century before soap was made for bathing and a different soap for laundry use.

When colonists first came to America, they brought barrels of soap with them on the ships. But soon decided to make their own soap in the fall of the year after animal slaughtering time. The lard was taken from the butchered animals, and the lye was from the burning wood in the fireplace. Making lye soap was a delicate process. Too much lye and the soap would burn the skin. If not enough lye, the soap would not set.

The lye was made by placing the ashes in a barrel. Water was poured over the ashes until a brownish liquid oozed out the bottom of the barrel. This was called potash lye. The fat was placed in a large kettle outside. The smell was strong and not for the inside. Water was added and boiled until the fat melted. More water was added and then left overnight to cool. The fat left at the top of the kettle was used for the soap making. The fat and lye was placed in a large pot and placed over a fire outdoors and boiled sometimes as much as eight hours. Salt was added to make the soap harden. It was allowed to cool and cut into bars or poured into wooden frames.

Today some people will only use lye soap, believing in its magical powers. It is available at Cracker Barrel and other country stores as well as the internet.

The museum is featuring a vintage hat exhibit with over 60 hats worn by area residents. Don't forget to enter your old and new quilts at our annual Quilt Show on Sept. 27. Everyone loves to see the pretty and unusual quilts. It is free to enter and free to attend the show. For more information, please check our Facebook page.

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