How They Made All-Purpose Soap In The Old Days

As I’ve been experimenting with making my own laundry detergent, I’ve become dissatisfied at the idea of it not really being “from scratch”. It would only be so if I made it without buying a single ingredient.

I got to wondering how they used to make laundry soap, or any soap for that matter, back when there was no grocery store to buy it from.

Long ago, women didn’t use different kinds of soap for hygiene, laundry, baby care, dishes, or house cleaning. Everything was done with one type of soap, which was made from three main ingredients: tallow, lye, and water.

Tallow is a rendered form of beef fat. If you want to learn how to render your own tallow, check out this really helpful step-by-step.

Lye is made from wood ashes. You can order your own online, or if you are hard core about becoming self sufficient, you can make your own!

In the pioneer days, the women would make lye by gathering the wood ashes from their fireplace and putting them into a wooden hopper.

Next, they would pour water over it to soak the ashes. The water that seeped out of the hopper and into the wooden bucket was lye water.

Next, they would boil the lye and tallow in a large cast iron kettle, and stir until the mixture thickened. Then they would pour it into old dishes or gourds or anything they could find to make a mold, and let it sit until it was almost all the way hardened.

Once removed from the molds, the soap was cut into squares (or cakes) and left to sit in the sunlight to finish hardening.

This soap was used to wash everything!! I think that is so cool. If I ever get my hands on some tallow, and a large cast iron kettle, I’d LOVE to make my own soap like our ancestors did!

Do any of you make soap from home rendered tallow and lye? If so, I’d love to get a recipe!!

32 thoughts on “How They Made All-Purpose Soap In The Old Days”

  1. I don’t have a recipe for you, but you can go to your grocery meat section and get beef fat. My husband gets it from them for free! (He makes suet for the birds with it)

  2. During WWII, I remember my mother making homemade soap with lye and tallow (which she had melted from fat)in a small iron kettle (which I still have) on the back porch of our home. After the mixture was cooked and cooled in forms (my dad had made) my job as a 10 year old was to use a knife and make bars. I then would then apply the bars to a hand grater which resulted in soap chips to be used in our ringer washer. My have things changed.

    • Hi Floyd! I love your story about how you helped your mom to make soap the old-fashioned homesteading way! I would love to hear more such stories about your life and experiences growing up. I hope you are well, please take care, and thank you so much for sharing! Kindest regards and big hugs to you!, Emily in Cincinnati OH.

  3. Wow great tips guys!! I will be sure to try this out! What a dang shame it is that youngens these days do not make it their selves anymore.

  4. I give demos at My Oktoberfest using an old kettle and fire. I first render my tallow in my kettle, dip it all out into a lard press, then strain through cheese cloth. Then put 5 lbs of grease back into my kettle with one gallon of water. You have to heat this while stirring to get the two to mix. This part takes a long time but it must blend together. Then I add another gallon of water and 16oz. of lye and cook until it thickens. You want it to sheet off of your paddle like wax. It takes quite a while to make but it is fun.

  5. I have made my own soap using lye, but with meth labs being a problem in some areas of the country many store no longer sell lye in cans. Unless you know someone who knows you are a Christian and clean living, who works/owns a hardware or grocery store, who could order you some.

  6. Hi,
    I made soap from our summerpigs rendered tallow.
    It is quite fresh still. But I´m sure it will be wonderfull.
    Here is link for my recipe.
    You can see the pictures.
    The recipe is

    Pig tallow 0,7lb
    olive oil 0,33lb
    coconut 76degree 0,22lb

    water 0,4lb
    lye 0,16

    I changed the grams to lb´s.

    He re is the link how I rendered

    They are all in finnish, sorry.
    But you can see the pictures.

    The soap doesen´t smell pigsmeat 😀 It smells nice and soapy.
    And feels already smooth.

  7. Anyone using or planning on using lye – please take a look at this link first
    Making your own soap is great, but make sure your priorities are straight. To me, the risk of one of my children getting anywhere near this stuff is not worth my desire to be self-sufficient so I’m going to have to save my soap-making for days when I don’t have babies around (which will probably be awhile).

  8. In preparing to move out to our own little homestead, we’ve been practicing our self-sufficency skills. (I figure we should make most of our mistakes while Wal-mart is still right down the street.) So far, few of our experiments are 100% homemade, though we have been making our own laundry detergent. All you need is one bar of soap, 2 cups baking soda (store bought, I know, but I do like it’s odor eater properties), and 2 gallons hot water.

    Grate the bar of soap into a saucepan, and add just enough water to cover. Melt on low heat – stirring frequently. Add the melted soap and baking soda to the hot water and stir. We use old laundry soap bottles to store it in.

    You have to shake it up a bit each time you’re going to use it, but it only takes about a cup for a large load of clothes. Less if the clothes aren’t that soiled. It does not bubble up when washing, but then it’s the soap that does the work, not the bubbles.

  9. Rendering isn’t so hard and needn’t be done in huge quantities all at once. I would wonder what one was using if the smell was horrible, it should smell the same as cooking meat unless for some reason the meat/fat was already rancid. (Which would still make a usable soap, but why wait that long?)

    All you want is the fat from the meat you cook. You can start saving the fat from cooking hamburgers in a pan for instance, pour it in with some water and let the fat harden that collects at the top. Scrape the meat bits off the bottom of the cake of fat and save the clean fat. You can melt it into water a couple of times to “clean it more” if needed. Since we butcher our own meat, it is not “trimmed” like store meat, so I save fat from roasts, crockpots and broth making. Also I suggest you give blender soap a try. No need to make so very much at a time and no cooking either. I use silicon muffin or loaf pans for soap molds.


  10. My sister-in-law makes soap as well. She uses lye and palm oil and essential oils. She just made some rosemary peppermint and it is awesome! It leaves my skin all minty feeling (like how burt’s bees chapstick leaves your lips). Good luck!

  11. Like several of the others have posted – I have made my own soap in the past but never with tallow or my own lye (used store bought lye and oil). I would like to try with my own ingredients but my first goal is to get back to just making my own soaps again then we will try with my own ingredients!

  12. I can’t add anything to what Angie said except that the smell of the rendering fat is UNBEARABLE. I would recommend this as a summer activity so you can open all the windows. DH and I also prefer to use vegetable oils in our soaps because they seem to make a milder product. Soapmaking has become a pretty popular hobby–your library should have at least one book with some recipes in it. Let us know if you decide to give it a try!!

  13. I have rendered pig fat into lard, and beef fat into tallow and made lye soap from that. It is not difficult, it just takes a while. You don’t need a iron kettle either, although it would be cool. I did mine on my stove in the my stock pot. Tallow is a harder fat than lard, and will make a harder soap, so it needs more water to keep from being too dry. Lard is a little soft, so it is good to add part tallow and part lard. Maybe 4 lbs lard, and 2 lbs tallow would make a nice soft but durable soap. I used the recipe from The Country Living Encylopedia. (If you don’t have this book, get it. It is awesome.)
    2 1/2 pts cold water
    6 lbs melted fat
    1 can lye

    Measure water into large pot (I used an old enamel pot, because you probably don’t want to cook in it again after making soap in it)
    Just don’t use aluminum as the lye eats it. Slowly add lye and stir gently. It is going to get hot, just keep stiring until the temperature goes down to 70 degrees for lard, and 90 degrees for tallow. Add fat which should be 120 degrees for lard, 130 degrees for tallow. Stir until it tracing occurs.

    I don’t recommend trying it with just the recipe. Get a book and read up on it. Lye is dangerous. It is also an ingredient in meth, which is why you can’t find it at walmart anymore. I found mine at ACE hardware. Even then they had to take my drivers license number before I could buy it. It was only like $3.00.

    I use this soap for my laundry soap instead of fels naptha, and it works well. I have also remilled some and made some very pretty soaps for gifts. Hope I haven’t gone on too long. I enjoy your blog a great deal.

  14. I would so love to try this. I have been wanting to start making my own soap and do other things “the old fashion” ways.

    I also love the pictures that you posted!

  15. I’ve never done either of those things. I make my own laundry soap using soda, Borax and Fels Naptha and I make my own shampoo. I have really been wanting to venture into soap making – but am having a nearly impossible time even finding lye. If you have any ideas where I can get some – feel free to let me know! I don’t have a fireplace.

  16. I own my great-great grandmothers big iron kettle that they used on the homestead to make lye soap!! Now I use it next to my back door to plant flowers in…. it is cracked and not usable as a kettle any longer. I LOVE owning it and would really like to find a usable one since we heat our home with wood I have plenty of ash.
    thanks for the post!

  17. I make my own soap, however, I have yet to use tallow. I prefer to go the vegan route and use vegetable oils rather than animal fats.

  18. I make my own regular soap with lye and oils. Darn you for putting this out there! Now I really want to try it. I should give it a go. 😉

  19. A friend of mine has rendered tallow, but I never got around to this (yet!). I don’t know anyone who has rendered their own lye, but I’ve got an entire metal trash can full of wood ash! Wish you were my neighbor. We could do a heap of stuff!


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