My Grandma’s Lye Soap


When I was a wee lad of about 3 or 4 years old, I remember my grandmother making her own lye soap in her backyard. I don’t remember all of the ingredients, but I do remember the wood ashes and some sort of fat as well as lye.

My grandmother was able to get by with the simplest things because at various times in her life she had to live a simple life. When I was a youngster, I remember a coal fired potbelly stove in the living room of her small cottage style house. In the kitchen was an old wood fired cook stove that was replaced a few years later with a more modern gas range. The old wood stove was the source of ashes she used in her soap recipe.

The fat she used, to make her soap, came from meat drippings or lard. I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the big two-pound coffee can on my grandmother’s old kitchen stove used to store "Grease," as she called it. She cooked bacon or sausage for breakfast everyday and made a lot of meals with good old-fashioned ground beef. These types of meats produced copious quantities of grease, which Grandma would pour into the covered coffee can that she kept toward the backside of the stove top.

When Grandma’s supply of lye soap was getting low, she would go out in her backyard and build a wood fire. When the fire was big enough, she would place a wash tub over the fire. The tub would be filled half-full with water. When the water had reached a high enough temperature, into the tub would go the ingredients for her soap. As I said earlier, this would include wood ashes, grease, store-bought lye and other ingredients I no longer remember. Grandma would use store-bought lard only if she didn’t have enough "Stove grease" available.

As part of this backyard soap factory, there was a big tree stump. This stump was about three feet in diameter, so it must have been a fairly old tree when it was cut down. That stump had always been there as far as I was concerned. It had been sawn off in such a way that it made a nice backyard table. I’ll get back to the stump a little later.

Grandma would now stir the hot, bubbling, soap mixture occasionally during the afternoon until the goop became thick. When it reached a thick enough consistency, Grandma would place a big soap sheet on the nearby stump. A soap sheet looked very much like an oversized cookie sheet. It was made of a thick piece of galvanized sheet metal. It was about four feet on a side and had an upturned edge that was about one inch high. This edge determined the thickness of the bars of soap.

Grandma would use a very large ladle to scoop up a large quantity of gray colored glop and plop it on the soap sheet. She would repeat this until the soap sheet was full or the tub was empty. When the soap sheet was full of the gooey gray soap, Grandma would tap on the side of the soap sheet, several times with a broom handle, to get the mixture to settle to an even thickness. Finally, just before the soap had hardened completely, Grandma would use a very big knife (very big to a 3 or 4 year old boy) to cut lines across the nearly hardened soap. The resulting bars of soap were about 2 by 3 inches in size and one inch thick with very rough edges. So, that is my recollection of my grandmother making her own brand of lye soap.


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