Good Old Fashioned Clean: Five Facts about Colonial Soap by Kelly White

  • May 13, 2020
  • Posted By: Pennsbury Manor

While colonists may not have bathed as often as most modern people, they still performed basic sanitary practices. Read on to learn about how 17thcentury folk made soap. 

 1. Good clean fun! 

From a chemical perspective, most modern “soap” available in drug stores is actually a form of detergent. Real soap, like the kind that would have been made in Penn’s day, is the result of a chemical reaction called saponification: when a fatty substance comes in contact with an alkaline substance.  

 2. Cheap as dirt…or soap! 

Many working class colonists opted to make soap themselves because it made use of materials they already had on hand. Lye, the alkaline substance needed for saponification, could be made by pouring water over ashes from the fireplace. This was typically done in a special basin, called a leaching barrel or an ash hopper. For the fatty substance, colonists used animal fat left over from cooking or butchering.  

 3. Blood, sweat, and tears 

The process of making soap was surprisingly dangerous and all around unpleasant. Once folks  made  their lye, they concentrated it by boiling it over a fire. Lye is a corrosive chemical so colonists had to work carefully to avoid burns. Next the animal fat had to be rendered, melted, and mixed with water. This process cooked any bits of gristle still clinging to the fat and prevented the finished product from going rancid. Due to the heat and odor involved, soap was made outside. 

 4. It only takes a taste!  

Once the lye and liquified fat were combined, the soap was left to cool. Salt was optionally added to create solid bars of soap. One way to test the strength of the product was to perform a “zap test.” A person would lick the finished bar of soap, and if he or she felt a zap or a slight sting, the lye concentration was too strong and the soap should not be used on a person’s skin. 

 5. Ladies and gentlemen…don’t try this at home! 

No one likes the taste of lye or the sensation of caustic burns, so authentic soap making is best left to the professionals. To create a similar experience at home, you can purchase a melt-and-pour soap making kit from a craft store or online retailer.  


Works Cited :

Ellis, Marietta, and Arthur Ellis. “Colonial Soap Making—Its History and Techniques.” garyolds.com. Gary Olds Art and Fine Crafts. Accessed May 11, 2020. http://www.garyolds.com/files/ColonialSoapMaking–HistoryTechniques.pdf. 

Kaktins, Mara. “Good Clean Fun: An Experiment in Colonial Soap Making.” Lives & Legacies. Historic Kenmore, June 1, 2017. https://livesandlegaciesblog.org/2017/06/01/good-clean-fun-an-experiment-in-soap-making-colonial-style/. 

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