Folklife: The Lost Tradition of Lye Soap and Hog Killin’ Day

The older I get the more I tend to reminisce and revive old childhood memories.  With the first frost announcing winter’s arrival, comes football, hot grits for breakfast and bringing out the long underwear.

Another yearly tradition was the annual “hog killing, crackling bread and making lye soap” time!  Hog Killing Day and lye soap go hand in hand.  Hogs provided much more than just meat but also supplied families with enough lard to last through the winter and spring. The meat fat was also used to make lye soap for all our dishwashing and laundry.

I went to the grocery store the other day and it was amazing to see the multitude of many different brands of detergents, bleaches, water softeners, cleaning solutions and maybe a few cakes of honest to goodness soap.

Then there are the repetitious TV and radio commercials all trying to convince you that this soap is better than the other.  There’s soap for dry skin, sensitive skin, oily skin, itchy skin and the list goes on!  The process of making lye soap has become a lost art.

My mama always said, “I don’t care how poor you are, the cheapest thing you can buy is soap! There’s no excuse for being dirty or living in squander”.

Commercial soap was available back in the day, but it was expensive.  The coarse yellow laundry soap was abrasive and harsh on your clothes and hands. Castile was nice but not strong enough for laundry that had been exposed to working in the fields and tending to a farm.  So we grew up using lye soap for wash day and bathing.  Grandma Viola used to keep her soap in a biscuit jar in the bathroom.

I always thought Grandma’s lye soap smelled a lot more pleasant than other lye soaps I had used at my great aunt’s house.  Grandma said her secret ingredient was Ivory flakes that she would add to her recipe.  Lye soap was also used to exterminate pests, deodorize the house, and everyday house cleaning.

Hog Killing Day

The whole family pitched in for the special occasion and usually started a day ahead of the event.  Family members come to help because there’s so much work with dressing hogs.  Outdoor washpots were filled with water to boil for scalding the hog and wood ashes were later transferred to barrels or the ash hopper.  It was only after the hog carcass was cut up that the womenfolk got to work.  Lard was rendered in the washpots and sausage was stuffed.

The head and feet of the hog were cooked to make souse meat. The sides, shoulders, hams, and jaws of the hog were cured with salt and hung in the smokehouse.  By this time of the year, the family was usually low on meat and down to living on fatback and side meat.

Men from the Rosenberger, Plenge and Korfhage families gather around a slaughtered, boiled hog preparing to remove it’s hair. (The Courier-Journal – Louisville Kentucky, December 3, 1987.

Hog killing time provided enough meat to last them until the next year’s hog-killing time arrived.  Hogs were easier to raise because they are hardy, easy to fatten, and relatively simple to butcher and preserve.  Over the years, the freezer locker reduced the prominence of the winter pork harvest. The hog is one of mans greatest blessings, no matter what dietitians say about eating pork.

It was an absolute requisite to make lye soap after hog-killing time in order to utilize the pork by-products from the trimmings of fat and discarded skin parts.  Most folks made soap from saved table fat scraps of pork, beef, mutton and tallow.  My grandma made her lye soap with lard made from the hog we killed.

Taught in School – North Mecklenburg High School Future Farmers of America learn every detail of hog butchering in an hand-on training class taught by Vocational Agricultural Teachers. (The Charlotte Observer – Charlotte, NC, January 14, 1954 – Staff Photo by Hancock)

The Old Ash Hopper

There are two basic ways to make lye soap, the easy way or the hard way. The hard way was using the ash hopper method.  It wasn’t unusual to see an old ash hopper and a black cauldron pot on the back porch from the kitchen during those days.  An ash hopper was a handmade contraption for soap making made from scrap pieces of board.  The boards were placed in a V-shaped position to allow water to run through the center.  Sometimes it was just a hollow log from a black gum tree.

The ash hopper was then filled with wheat straw to serve as a strainer.  When filled with wood ashes, rainwater would run through the ashes into a container that became liquid lye. You would then take about a gallon of the lye water,  pour it into a pot, and build a fire under the pot.

Ash hopper is constructed from a hollow black gum tree set on a sloping platform. Water is poured repeatedly over bucketfuls of oak wood ashes to create a brown liquid, to which lard and hog parts are added. Photo courtesy of Robert Williams

You might want to take the lye solution and run it through the hopper again until the desired strength has been reached.  To tell if the lye was strong enough, you could dip a feather from the tail of a rooster.

If the lye water sizzled all the fuzz from the feather, then it’s bona fide lye and ready to use!  The slower the water seeped through, the stronger the lye.  Add the lard or grease and start stirring until it starts to thicken.

When the mixture reached a consistency of caramel fudge, it was ready to be poured into containers.

Lye Soap Made Easy

The easy way was to purchase commercial lye.  Lye began to be produced commercially in 1836 and folks back then relied on Red Devil Lye.  When commercial lye started appearing on the shelves, it brought an end to the ash hopper and outside iron pot for soapmaking.   The commercial lye was dumped into an empty lard bucket.  Just about everyone had an old lard bucket since they no longer used it to carry fat-back and biscuits to work or school.  You would then add 5 cups of cold water very carefully.  Water and lye mixed produced temperatures up to two hundred degrees and could seriously burn you!

You also had to cover your face with an old handkerchief to avoid smelling the harmful fumes.  Once the water and lye were mixed thoroughly the water became clear again.  Then you would slowly add about 11 cups of lard or melted fat.  Stir as you pour and wait a little bit to give the lye a chance to cool down.  Now if you had hard well water containing a lot of minerals, you could add a half cup of borax to help the soap lather better.

Remember Twenty Mule Team Borax?  Stir this mixture until it thickens like pea soup.  Then pour the mixture into molds or cardboard boxes lined with waxed paper to keep the soap from sticking.  Let the soap harden for about a day and then you can cut it into squares.  Making soap with commercial lye is easier than collecting wood ashes and experimenting with the strength of the lye solution.

On wash day, lye soap was used to clean laundry. White linens and snowflake white dresses were rinsed in clear water with a dab of blueing.  Watch out for goats!  They love to pull the washing off the clothesline and eat it after it had been washed in lye soap.

For some odd reason, goats find lye soap very appetizing!  The kitchen floor was cleaned every week with lye soap to remove grease spots, dirt, and grime. Lye soap was cheap to make and it gave you something to do with all the ashes from the woodstove or fireplace.  Making lye soap requires strict directions and the temperature has to be watched carefully.

John Trip stokes the fire while his wife, Ruth, dips a feather into the soapy brew. (Asheville Citizen-Times – Asheville, NC, April 19, 1988) Photo by Maggie Lauterer

Even then, a batch may not harden as expected or may become too hard to cut into bars. But even if your batch of homemade lye soap didn’t come out the way you wanted it, we still used it.  Softsoap was used for dishwashing and the small broken pieces were added to the laundry.  Lye soap was not only an all-purpose cleaner but was also beneficial in treating skin rashes, acne, and poison ivy.  It helped to quickly heal scrapes and small cuts.  For laundry, it was the only thing that would clean red clay and industrial grease out of papa’s work clothes.

The crude ways of making lye soap in the past have been lost in the hurry-up, easy-cleaner, push-button world of today.  Today, making lye soap is made with plant oils instead of animal fat.  Lye soap didn’t lather as well as commercial soap.  This gave people the impression that lye soap was too strong and harmful.  On the contrary, if traditional lye soap is made properly, it’s all you need.

Today, soap making is a far contrast from the back-breaking job it was back then. With renewed interest in self-sufficiency, dooms-day preppers, and organic products, homemade lye soap is making a comeback but with a more modern twist.  Traditional soap making has been left behind in the days gone past.

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Hope Thompson
Hope Thompson

Hope Thompson is the editor and publisher of Unmasked History Magazine. She has been a freelance journalist for seven years and has published articles for popular media websites such as Her focus has been on the hidden history, Native American culture, activism, Appalachian and Southern folklore traditions.

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