I spent much of my early years, up until about the age of 12, living with my grandparents out on the farm, and believe me when I tell you our lifestyle out there was completely different from what we know today.
Apparently, my grandparents didn't have a lot of money, but they had a lot of ingenuity, or “smarts,” to make do with what they did have. My dear old grandmother would never dream of going to the store and buying anything that she couldn’t grow or make on the farm, regardless of how difficult the process or how much work was involved. She wouldn’t even part with 29 cents for something as simple as a bar of soap, she made her own from scratch. Grandma’s lye soap making was a big deal and she involved everyone in the procedure, including myself. Today however, lye soap making is almost a lost art.
Every year at the annual hog-killing time, the lard was saved and mixed with lye and water to form the soap. She didn’t go to the store to buy a can of lye; she used ashes from the wood cook stove to make the lye. The ash was heated until it became white, and was then mixed with water. The resulting liquid was then processed to make the lye. Grandma used a huge old fashioned kettle for the mixture of lard and lye, and this was heated over an open fire out in the backyard. The amount of lye used determined the strength (or harshness) of the soap. After the mixture was cooked, it was ladled into metal pans to dry and harden – a process that often took several weeks. Then it was cut into bars and used for about anything you can think of.
We never had anything like Zest or liquid hand soap; grandma never dreamed of buying Tide or Cheer for the laundry, it was lye soap for everything. She would take out her paring knife and scrape off small shavings from the bar into her laundry water; it not only cleaned the farm dirty work clothes, but served as bleach for the whites. She did the same with her mop bucket every time she mopped the floors. She took a bar of lye soap and lathered up her dish rag to wash the dishes each night after supper, and every Saturday night when everyone took their weekly bath it was in the wash tub sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor. She claimed a good scrubbing with lye soap kept the fleas and ticks off the dogs, and lice out of our own hair.
Poison ivy was a fact of life on the farm, and she would scrub the affected area right good with her wash cloth loaded with lye soap and then cover it with Caladryl.
On hot summer nights we went outside each night after supper to sit on the front porch while we waited for the house to cool off enough to go back inside and go to bed for the night. There was no such thing as air conditioning and she only had one little 12-inch Westinghouse oscillating fan which was pointed at her bed. She even washed us right good with lye soap before we were allowed to go out and sit on the porch, because she claimed it kept the mosquitoes from sucking the living blood out of us. I probably don’t need to tell you that back in those days mosquitoes were as thick as fleas on a hound dog's back during the long summer nights here along the Missouri River bluffs.
In cooperation with The Examiner, Ted W. Stillwell is available to speak before any club, church, civic, senior, or school groups.
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