(Grade school or short middle school version)
As soap was not here when they arrived, early settlers where required to make it themselves.
Making soap as far as the settlers were concerned was women's business.
The women stored cooking grease and animal fat all year long for soap making day, a yearly
event that preceded Spring cleaning.
Ashes from the fireplaces were also stored to make lye. Rainwater was trickled through the ashes to leach out the lye contained in the potassium salts of the burned wood. A fresh egg was used to determine whether the lye was of proper strength. If it sank slowly, all was well. If it floated, the lye was thought to be too strong, and would have to be diluted; if it dropped, the lye was too weak, and would be run through the "ash hopper" again or boiled down.
Solid fats would have to be rendered, and then all fats boiled and skimmed to rid it of extraneous hair, dirt, spices, and other debris. Then it would be strained through a fine cloth. The lye was then stirred into the fats. If the mixture formed a thick ingredient the project was successful. If it separated, they tried again. This process would take most of the day to complete.
To make soap, families saved up leftover scraps of fat from meat that they had eaten during the year, and they also saved the ashes from the fireplace, pouring water over them to release the lye contained in the ashes. On the day that they made the soap, they first cooked the fat in a large pot over a fire for several hours, until it was smooth. They then added the lye water, and stirred for several more hours. Lastly, they would pour this mixture into wooden molds to harden. The soap usually took about one day to harden.
Over 150 years passed before some enterprising persons decided to produce soap for mass distribution and consumption. These early soap entrepreneurs appeared in the mid 18th century. They made rounds of local households, purchased their stored fat, and sold the soap back to housewives. They were called Tallow Chandlers and Soap Boilers, and among their number
was Josiah Franklin, the father of Ben Franklin.
In 1806 William Colgate opened up a soapmaking concern in New York called Colgate & Company which was to become the first great soap making concern in this Country. It was not until the 1830's that the company began selling individual bars in uniform weights. In 1872 Colgate introduced Cashmere Bouquet, a perfumed soap.
Today, most Americans purchase soap at the grocery store, where there is a wide array of choices, from scented bath bars, to powerful chemical cleansers. Once, Americans had only one option: to use the soap they had made themselves. They used then the same two main ingredients used today which are lard and lye.
The soap was used for laundry, dish-washing, and bathing; pretty much the same uses as today, but in reality very different. One is bathing. Today we use special scented and deodorent soaps, bathe almost every day, and have hot water in our homes. Back then, they bathed generally only once a week, for example: on Saturday night, before church the next morning. They bathed in a wash basin, with water they had hauled to the house from either a well or a creek, and the whole family often used the same water.
Laundry has changed just as much. Today, we merely dump our clothes in the washing machine, add a little detergent soap, and wait until it finishes, then put the clothes in the dryer. Then, the women had to scrub the clothes by hand in a wash basin, using only soap, water, and a washboard. The clothes were then hung on the line to dry, or in later times, put through a clothes ringer. Dish-washing has also changed considerably.
Today, we use soap for purposes that it would not have been used for by earlier people. For example, many people lived in homes with dirt floors, so that scrubbing the floor was not possible.
And if one of these pioneers were to visit a modern soap factory, they would be quite amazed. All of the manufacturing is done by machine, making huge amounts daily to satisfy the American consumers. Though the ingredients of lard and lye are still the same, much has changed. The process has evolved, just as the rest of America has.