Toilet of Flora Olive Oil Soap c. 1779

August 28, 2013 in Creating The 18th Century, Soap, Scent, Toners and Tonics by M C

The Toilet of Flora has an entire chapter on Wash-Balls, most of which call for using “the best White Soap” in the ingredient list.  Fortunately, she provides a recipe for White Soap:

This foap is made with one part of the Lees of Spanifh Pot-afh and Quick-lime, to two parts of Oil of Olives or Oil of Almonds.

That’s the entire recipe.  How complicated can this possibly be?

The picture of potash I found online looks very much like the crushed potash which came in my little sack.

First we need Spanish Potash.  No problem.  Potash is mined all over the world, one deposit is in the Canadian Maritime Provinces.  Another huge deposit is in western Canada.  And the very large bag my feed store hauled out for my inspection was mined in the American west.

quicklime-potash1That’s 50 pounds of potash fertilizer on a dolly.  Unfortunately, it is only 22% potash.  The rest is filler and other elements.  And there’s 50 pounds of it, in a cumbersome plastic bag, the lifting of which is just begging to put your back out.  Even though I can use anything I don’t squander on an 18th century soap recipe on my pastures, quite likely to good effect, 50 pounds of potash is pricey, and this stuff is not even close to pure.

But my Agway is fearless, intrepid, and enthusiastic about being part of recreating this soap.  Unlike the bored health store staff Agway’s employees crowded around to read the recipe (such as it is).  Inspired they hit their suppliers and discover you can buy small bags of 60% potash, so we decide this will work, and order some.

Meanwhile, I need quick-lime, and I don’t need a 100 pound sack of the stuff to set cement.  Agway to the rescue again.. who knew Lime Pickles were made with, yes, Quicklime!  My local Agway, that’s who.  I’ve never had lime pickles, but this little sack does indeed contain food grade quicklime, and recipes for pickles.

It took two weeks to assemble the ingredients.  I suppose this is reasonable, considering how long it might have taken Flora to assemble her ingredients, as they came in one trade ship at a time.  But at last I have them and can give this soap a try.

Lees are the deposits of dead or leftover yeast and other particles that precipitate out of the first fermentation of wine, and the second fermentation of beer.  Potash, however, is water soluble, which is why we can extract it from wood ash by leeching (see Lallybroach Lather: Wood Ash Lye Soap).  So if we blend this potash with water we should end up with potash lye water.  I am hoping Flora wrote Lees but meant Leach.  


Then I’ll add a few tablespoons of quicklime, measure out a cup of what should be lye, and add the two cups of olive oil and.. soap balls will form!

Which…. they don’t.  Not even close.  What does happen is the reddish pink potash “lees” don’t color the soap.. the soap turns white.  This seems encouraging.

quicklime-soap4I hit the blend with everything a modern kitchen has at its disposal: a hand blender and a boiling water bath to bring the mixture up to a temperature which might inspire saponification.

Nothing.  What I have is a greasy substance that looks like it might be thinking about turning into soap, but isn’t.

I decided nothing ventured, nothing gained.. perhaps I didn’t use enough quicklime.  I added another 4 tablespoons of quicklime straight into the olive oil “soap” blend, and whipped the concoction.

Oh, now that looks like soap!

But it sure doesn’t behave like soap. Like adding cream of tartar to egg whites the quicklime hasn’t created saponification, just foamy peaks.  When I test the “soap” it doesn’t foam, it merely turns my hands slick with grease..

If at first you don’t succeed, look it up on the internet.  Flora’s directions are so sketchy they suggest people knew how to work with potash and quicklime.  And since wood ash lye soap is made with potash, this doesn’t seem unreasonable.

What I don’t know, since like the 18th century housewife I don’t have test papers, is how strong the potash lye is.  Nor do I know how much stronger the lye gets when I add the quicklime.  Or even if I’m doing it correctly.

I am able to find is a recipe for making lye water out of quicklime (1):

Put 3 pounds of washing soda, 3 pounds of slaked lime, and 12 quarts of water into a large pot. Boil for 20 minutes. Wait for the contents to cook, and when cold, pour off the liquid part which is your lye.

quicklime-soap5Since I only have half a pound of quicklime left, and Flora makes no mention of washing soda, I substitute 4 cups of potash water for the washing soda, throw my 8 ounces of quicklime in, and cook.  For 20 minutes.

The smell rolls out of the kitchen and starts creeping around the house like a puckish phantom.  This is not a good thing.  The husband hasn’t recovered from the Lallybroach Lather episode.  Since it’s raining, I can’t stick the pot outside, so I pour the blend into a jar and cap it, hoping the trap the poltergeist of pungent.

Yea, like that’s going to work.

But a small amount of clear liquid does appear at the top of the jar.. in theory.. lye!  I manage to pull about half a cup of lye off the top of the jar and blend a cup of olive oil into the lye.

It thickens and turns a very pale pink.  Furiously stirring will incorporate all the oil into the blend, but it separates after a few minutes.  And it doesn’t behave like soap, it leaves an oil slick of grease behind, even after rinsing in very hot water.

quicklime-soap6 Flora calls her chapter “Wash Balls,” and I had an expectation of the end product which, in the light of abject failure, seems unrealistic.  Potassium hydroxide will not make a hard soap unless salt is added to the lye, and potash, whether it is mined or obtained from wood ash, is… potassium hydroxide.  Calcium hydroxide (quicklime) doesn’t add the necessary sodium, to harden the soap into “wash balls,” either.

But wait.. it gets better.  The first potash deposits in the world were discovered in 1856, when potash-bearing strata were found during sinking work aimed at opening up a rock salt deposit in Staßfurt, near Magdeburg in Saxony-Anhalt.(3) 

That’s right.  “Spanish Potash” couldn’t have been mined potash because potash wasn’t being mined in 1779. Whatever Spanish Pot-afh is, it isn’t the stuff from my local feed store.  Spain doesn’t discover major potash deposits until the early 20th century, if this article Potash Deposits in Spain by Hoyt Gail published in Contributions to Economic Geology 1920  is anything to go by.

Since I’ve run out of both lime and time I’ve called this experiment, and have to admit it a failure. Furthermore, I need to add the following warning:

I was not wearing gloves when I tested these soap batches, nor was I wearing gloves when I cleaned the kitchen, and my hands, four hours later, are behaving as if they’ve received a bad sunburn. Under normal daily use I will apply the hand cream I made a week or so ago and my hands will feel comfortably moisturized for several hours.  This evening my hands feel sandpaper dry, no matter how much lotion (including 21st century lotion) I apply.  I’m pretty confident I’ve burned my hands.  Not badly, but badly enough.. similar to a peeling sunburn.

If you are experimenting with lye wear gloves!!  It was just stupid of me to think that just because the blend wasn’t saponifying that meant the lye was too weak to worry about.  While the lye didn’t take my skin right off at the time (which careless handling of lye can do) it did strip all the oils out of my skin, and I am going to be dealing with this for several days.

Wear the bloody gloves.  And eye protection, come to that.

Further exploration pulled up some interesting quirks of quicklime: limewater made with calcium hydroxide has a substantially higher pH at lower temperatures,  12.627 at 20ºC and 13.00 at 10ºC, compared to 12.289 at 30ºC and 11.984 at 40ºC.(1)   Unlike making Lost Lamb Soap with sodium hydroxide, which uses heat to saponify the fats, lye made from quicklime should work at a lower temperature.


So I’m not sure why the second recipe suggests cooking the quicklime with washing soda unless there’s a reaction between the washing soda and quicklime which yields potassium hydroxide.  But since I have neither washing soda nor quicklime to hand this will have to go on the list as an adventure for another day.  Should you wish to try working with washing soda and quicklime you’ll find further information, and recipes here.

Meanwhile… tidying up the kitchen did nothing to diminish the distinct eau du experiment.  Fortunately, the blueberry bushes are still producing fruit.  A half hour with a bowl and with 8 cups of berries I have a plan, thanks to a poster on the Compuserv Writer’s Forum: Blueberry Whisky Cordial flavored with blackcurrant leaves.

blueberries_and_currants1Flora’s soap balls weren’t a success but I can confidently tell you simmering blueberry cordial flavored with blackcurrant leaves will drive the smell of failure right out of the house. And while cordial should sit for a month to allow the flavors to blend, capping off the day with fresh blueberry whisky cordial, made with incredibly cheap whisky kept to flavor fruitcakes, is not too trying.  The Compuserv contributor was right, cassis leaves add a lovely flavor to the cordial.


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