The Lallybroch Lather: soap at home in the 18th Century

August 6, 2013 in Creating The 18th Century, Living history, Soap, Scent, Toners and Tonics by M C

Claire, returning to Lallybroch with Jamie, knows Jenny is suspicious of her… and the proof is in the soap she’s been given to use.  Instead of the brown homemade wood ash lye soap everyone else makes do with, Claire is given a bar of French milled soap.

By the time Jamie and Claire return to Lallybroch, after an absence of a couple decades, soapboiling and candlemaking (two trades often practiced together since both involve rendering tallow (purifying fat)) are common occupations.  Literally thousands of pounds of tallow soap are being produced in England, and the soap output of the continent must be measured in tonnage.  And lest you think soapmakers or “soapboilers” were limited to England and the Continent, the first soapboiler arrived in Jamestown in 1609. If the mid-18th century denizen didn’t understand germ theory they understand the use of soap in textile production, and personal hygiene was more a matter of superstition and personal preference than a lack of understanding of the properties of soap.

That said, the method by which people made soap at home is even more primitive than the recipe found in Mappae Clavicula, published, depending on who you choose to believe, between 600 and 1130 AD.  The first known recipe for soap calls for cooking down the liquid obtained by straining water through wood ashes.  But for hundreds of years homemakers made soap with un-concentrated wood ash lye.. and an iffy proposition it was too.

The stories of women slaving over a cauldron boiling soap are, unhappily, accurate.  Not only is this a horribly hot and tedious job, it is notoriously unreliable.  It wasn’t at all uncommon for batch after batch of soap to fail. Elizabeth Norton, a niece of President John Adams, mentions in her 1799 diary making no less than three batches of soap before she managed to produce the barrel of soap her family needed.  Soapmaking, and its quirks, gave rise to all sorts of superstitions regarding the proper time and place for making soap, how it should be stirred, and what might be added to make the soap come.

To make soap with an unconcentrated wood ash lye hot rendered (clean) fat was added to the weak lye and the pot brought to a boil to encourage the saponification process.  Soap would rise to the surface of the pot to be skimmed off.  The soap might be further refined by boiling again with salt, again the purified soap being skimmed off the top of the pot.

Professional soap makers would have known better and more reliable results could be obtained by concentrating the lye solution.  And it is this method I’ll be using to make a soap which not only could have been produced at Lallybroch or Fraser’s Ridge, but likely, given Claire and Bree’s modern understanding of chemistry (and the fact that the recipe dates from the year 1000) would have been.

Wood Ash Lye is actually potash, potassium carbonate, not the caustic potassium hydroxide (KOH) sold to soap makers today.  Potash is obtained through leaching the ashes of wood or seaweed and then reducing the liquid to a dry powder.  As a point of trivia, the first US Patent was issued to a Vermonter, Samuel Hopkins for his improvement in the “making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process,” which points to the importance of potash in both the colonial economy and the British textile industry, and the desirability of the purer form “pearl ash” which is created by baking the potash in an oven to remove impurities.  In 1790 an acre of Vermont hardwoods could yield between 60-100 bushels of ashes, which could be filtered to produce the liquid lye or boiled down to the valuable potash.  The ashes alone were so valuable they could be sold for $3.25-6.25 an acre, roughly the cost of hiring a man to clear the area.

So, let’s start by making some wood ash lye..

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