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TOM DILLARD: The backyard craft of making soap

by Tom Dillard | December 29, 2019 at 1:59 a.m.

Today I put a thin layer of wood ashes over my vegetable garden, trusting that the potash will enrich the soil with the winter rains. Our Arkansas ancestors did the same thing, but generations of Arkansas women also used wood ashes to make lye soap.

So far, my wife has refused to revive that tradition.

Making soap is an ancient practice. It is believed the Babylonians were making soap by about 2800 B.C. Egyptian papyri, dated as early as 1550 B.C., describe soap making. Aleppo in modern Syria was a major soap-making center. Europeans encountered soap-making during the Crusades and brought the process back home.

The first commercial soap maker in America was William Colgate, an English immigrant who opened a starch, soap, and candle factory in New York City in 1806.

While residents of urban areas could purchase soap, most rural Arkansas families made their own well into the 20th century. In his memoir Back Yonder (1932), Waymon Hogue wrote that the small store near his farm in rural Faulkner County did not even sell soap. "But there was no demand for it, since people made their own soap at home and used it plentifully."

Lye soap is made by boiling a mixture of lye (sodium hydroxide) and animal fats. Lye could be purchased, but most Arkansans seem to have made their own from wood ashes. Almost all the sources specify hardwood ashes, although some claimed that the best lye came from ashes of oaks, especially red oaks.

Ashes were stored in a wooden structure called an ash hopper, which was ubiquitous in the backyards of rural southern homes. The iconic Arkansas Traveler painting, which depicts a rustic Arkansas home, includes an ash hopper with one of the settler's many children sitting atop it.

John Quincy Wolf, who was born in 1864 and grew up near Calico Rock, recalled in his memoirs that an ash hopper about six feet tall occupied a convenient spot in the yard. It was built in the shape of the letter V. The hopper, which was kept covered to keep the contents clean and dry, was filled slowly with hardwood ashes taken from the fireplace each day until it was full.

Soap was usually made in the spring. The late Patrick Dunnahoo of Benton wrote in his book on pioneer life in the Ouachitas: "About the first of March when the feel of spring was in the air, hill women would begin to think about making soap." Usually by March or April the ash hopper was full and ready for use.

The soap-making process began with pouring clean water into the top of the hopper. The water slowly percolated down through the ashes, emerging at the bottom as a red liquid potash known as lye. The lye was ready to be mixed with animal fats and boiled.

Families were careful to save kitchen grease and tallow--even small bones--for use in making soap.

The mixture was usually cooked in the family's large cast iron wash pot, another common feature in back yards throughout the South. The lye and grease were mixed and brought to a boil. Precise recipes were not normally used, and the cooking time was certainly variable depending on the amount of ingredients. Girls and young women learned how to make soap by helping their mothers.

Wolf recalled that "the pot was kept boiling for two or three hours until all the lye had been added and all the grease and bones had been thoroughly boiled." He also remembered that soap intended for "toilet" soap "was boiled much longer than that to be used for laundry purposes; soda was added to make the soap whiter." Without the soda, the soap was usually a light brown color.

Multiple sources report that soap makers dipped a feather--some sources specify using a feather from a crow--into the boiling mix to determine if the soap was done. If the feather emerged with only the quill remaining, it was finished. The liquid soap was poured onto a flat surface, allowed to harden, then cut into bars.

Like fictional Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies television program, many Arkansans preferred lye soap. Wolf recalled that "we kept our floors white by scrubbing them with white sand, water, and soap." Dunnahoo wrote that many of his elderly informants assured him that "homemade lye soap was a certain cure for dandruff."

Not everyone preferred homemade soap, and many commercial soaps were available beginning in the years following the Civil War. An 1884 advertisement in a Fayetteville newspaper boasted that one local store offered "the finest line of toilet soaps in the city." The ad specifically mentioned the availability of "the celebrated Pear's Glycerine Soap."

Pear's soap, first produced in 1807 in London, was immensely popular throughout the English-speaking world. Pear's, which is still produced, has been owned by Lever Brothers (now Unilever) since 1917.

Most homes in Arkansas prior to modern times did not have bathrooms. Basic hygiene was carried out by using wash basins. Those who could afford it often had porcelain bowls fitted into marble-topped wash stands.

Hogue described a more primitive washing facility: "Just outside the [detached] kitchen door and against the wall was a small bench on which there was another cedar water bucket, a tin wash pan, and a sardine box filled with lye soap. Hanging over the basin was a towel made from a worn-out meal sack."

Making soap over an open fire was fraught with danger. Women, who wore long dresses, were especially vulnerable. In December 1922, Mrs. Son Logan, age around 60, died at her home near Salem in Fulton County after suffering severe burns when her clothing caught fire.

An even more horrific tragedy took place in Cross County in April 1900, when a 2-year-old child who was "playing around the kettle, lost its balance and fell backward into the ... boiling soap. After suffering great pain it died two days later."

After many months, Arkansas has a State Archivist. David Ware, who has a doctoral degree in American history, has served since 2001 as the Capitol historian in the secretary of state's office.

Ware is well regarded in the history community. And at about the same time, William "Jimmy" Bryant of Conway was named director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the state agency in which the State Archives is located.

Many years ago, when I was director of the archives at the University of Central Arkansas, I hired Bryant to work as a student assistant. He has a master's degree in American history from UCA. It is good to see that someone with both an interest in Arkansas history as well as professional experience has been appointed.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at

Editorial on 12/29/2019


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