Memories and ideas fill my brain at the oddest times. I keep a dispenser of liquid soap at the kitchen sink and as I was washing my hands the other day, I thought "Grandma Bea would have loved this." She liked cleaniness and convenience and economy. She would have especially liked the idea of using the very last drop of soap and not wasting anything. I'm not so sure Grandmother Della would have been quite as enthusiastic. She was a firm believer in the virtue of lye soap. Grandma Bea grew up in the same era and she always kept lye soap too, but she shied away from using it on her face and hands once she discovered Ivory soap!
I hated lye soap! I think I know why now, after reading about the process of making it. Apparently if you don't get the right concentration of lye in the soap it is very caustic and stings your skin. Well, let me just tell you that I've been stung a few times! Not something you want your soap to do! And I never liked the idea of rubbing hog lard on my skin to get clean.
For those of you who are too young to know, here is how lye soap was made:
Lye soap was traditionally made from hog lard, rendered and saved from the annual fall hog kill, and lye, which was made from the ashes left over from the wood stoves. Women kept a wooden bin (with a spigot) into which they'd dump their ashes. When it was time to make lye soap, they poured water through the ashes and siphoned off the liquid lye. Lye is caustic, so the soap maker had to use just the right recipe for success. Too much lye would cause the soap to burn the skin, and too little would keep the soap from hardening. To make lye soap, lard and lye were mixed together in a big kettle over an open fire, and stirred for hours with a long-handled paddle. When the paddle could stand on its own, the soap was ready. Lye soap was then poured into a metal pan and allowed to dry and harden for two to four weeks. After the lye soap hardened, it was cut into smaller bars for everyday use. People used lye soap to clean everything from their bodies to their laundry.
I remember an awful experience when Mom washed my hair with lye soap she had gotten from Gran. My head burned like crazy! I didn't think about it until years later, but we had probably gotten lice somewhere. Lye soap was, and still is, touted as a cure for lice, eczema, poison ivy, dandruff and anything else that ails you.
I also blame lye soap for my aversion to hominy. I can't stand the stuff! Do you know why? Those of you over 50 probably know- hominy is corn cooked in lye water! I can still remember the smell of Gran making hominy, and it smelled like lye soap to me.
Now before I get hate mail I know there are people all over the world who still buy and use lye soap. I know that it isn't always made with hog lard. I know that there is even perfume in some of it. But that doesn't erase my memories. I'll stick with my liquid soap.