Gilmer Free Press

Jeanette Riffle: Remember Homemade Lye Soap?

The Free Press WV

I was inspired to different things to write about this week, but the article that I read about lye soap in the Saturday Charleston Gazette, brought back many memories.

A woman in the rental house on our property where I grew up, made her own soap. Glen and Viola Cogar were the tenants at one time there and Viola knew how to make ends meet. In the spring she was out picking greens or fishing to put food on the table.

She made throw rugs by saving up bread wrappers, cut them into long strips, twisted them into ropes and hooked them into a rug with a big crochet hook. 

She kept ammonia cookies baked up all the time for Glen’s lunch pail. He worked saw mill jobs or whatever he could find.

One day, I went out to visit with Viola and she was stirring up something in a big black kettle over an open fire in the front yard.

I asked her what she was making, and she said she was making lye soap.

I asked all kinds of questions as that was the first time I had heard of anyone making soap.

I stayed for a while and decided it was going to take a long time, so I ran back down the path to Mom.

Sometime later, Viola brought Mom a cake of her soap and it smelled so good that Mom had to try it out. She washed her hands and arms. 

I was out playing in the back yard and she came to the kitchen door and yelled at me to warn me about that soap. 

She said, “Jeanette, whatever you do, don’t wash your hands with that soap. It took the hair right off my arms.” 

I ran to the back-kitchen door to see her arms and they looked dry and flaky. 

I asked her what happened, and she said that Viola must have gotten too much lye in that soap. 

She said that she washed her arms and the hair came off in the wash pan of water. 

Scary! Later, that evening when Dad got home from work, he told Mom that this soap was the cleaning kind to scrub dirty wooden floors with or to get tough stains out of work clothes.

None of Mom’s people had made lye soap and she didn’t know anything about it.

She didn’t want anything more to do with that soap. I don’t know what she did with it. 

My husband said that his Aunt Susie Perrine and another lady made some lye soap at the Shock log cabin one time and they used a feather to test for strength.

If it took the quills off the feather, it was too strong. There was a recipe along with the article that I read, this Saturday. 

It calls for a can of lye and 5 cups of cold water. Mix together in an enamel or iron kettle as it will eat the bottom out of anything else. Stand way back and stir with a long stick or broom handle. Add ½ cup household ammonia, ½ cup borax or Borateem, and ½ cup sugar. Add 11 cups of beef tallow, lard or grease. Add sassafras or perfume oil. Stir until thickened and pour into a cardboard box lined with a white cloth. Cut into bars within 24 hours or it will become too hard to cut. I think I will buy my soap at the store. That might be safer.

Until next time, think spring. It is just around the corner.

--> Wednesday, March 07, 2018
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