It was TERRIBLE soap – harsh, soft, and stinky. Pioneers made it out of wood ashes and animal fat and used it to clean just about everything.
To make it, you first have to leech potassium hydroxide (a kind of lye) from wood ashes. Fill up a wooden bucket with ashes from your fireplace. Drill a very small hole in the bottom side of the bucket and put a stopper in it. Mount the bucket over a non-metallic or enameled bowl.
Pour boiling rain water into the ashes and pull out the stopper. The water, now containing lye, will drip into the bowl over a period of 4-5 days. Reheat the lye water and pour it back into the ashes. Do this three or four times until the lye solution is strong enough. The solution is strong enough when it dissolves a feather.
Now you’ll need some animal fat. Any kind of animal fat will do. You’ve been saving it for a while from the wild game you’ve been shooting out there on the prairie, so by now it stinks to high heaven. Heat it up with some water and let it boil until the liquid has separated from the solids. Remove the solids and feed them to your chickens.
Reduce the heat and pour the lye water into the oil, being VERY careful not to splash hot oil or caustic lye water on anything that matters to you. Hold your breath because this is going to produce toxic and flammable fumes.
Stir until the mixture becomes as thick as it’s going to get. You can never really tell how thick is thick enough because you haven’t measured any of this and you have no idea how strong your lye solution really is, and you have no idea if all the lye has been consumed in the process, nor do you know if you used enough lye to convert all of the oils.
You could end up with something that is caustic enough to burn your hands, or a sort of half-soap that leaves an oily residue.
Some people stirred salt water into the mixture at this point, and this is said to have caused soap to float to the top where it could be scraped off. I’m not going to try to verify that for you, if you don’t mind.
When it cools down your freshly made lye soap is a soft, (sometimes liquid) light colored, stinky mass of ugliness that you wouldn’t want to put on your skin or hair, but it will clean floors if you don’t mind bad smelling floors.
OK now. Ready to make some for yourself?