Laundry & Soap-Making


In the 1930s and 1940s, many of the household chores that we do in a short time today were much more difficult and sometimes took all day. Washing clothes now is pretty easy – all you have to do is put the clothes in a washing machine, press a button, and then you can go do something else with your day. It might take less than an hour of labor. Before washing machines, however, doing laundry took much long. Everything had to be done by hand, from pumping the water to making soap.

Families usually designated one day of the week for washing clothes, because it would often take them all day to accomplish the task. Clothes had to be scrubbed in extra hot water with soap made from lye, which was quite irritating to skin. Then the clothes had to be rinsed and hung on a clothesline to dry. When the weather was nice, this would only take a few hours. If the weather was cold, though, the clothes might freeze, and would have to be dried next to the fire inside.


Soap making began a long time ago when ancient people began to see that the fat from the meat they cooked would produce a substance that could be used to make what we now call homemade soap. This fatty substance could be combined with the ashes from outdoor cooking along with water to form a cleaning material that was easy to make and very useful around the home. Once it was realized that this strange combination of ingredients made a useful product, people made many uses of this substance before it came soap.

There are two main ways to make soap. These are the hot process or the cold process. At the Museum the cold process is used for making soap. Some heat is used in the cold process so the temperature is raised high enough to ensure complete melting of the fat. The mixture is poured into molds and allowed to cool. This soap is safe to use in approximately three weeks but does not reach its peak quality for use for several weeks.

A cold process soapmaker looks up the saponification value of the fats being used so the value can be used to calculate the correct amount of lye. Excess unreacted lye in the soap can burn or irritate skin or not enough lye will make the soap greasy. The term “Saponification” is the name given to the chemical reaction that occurs when animal fat is mixed with lye.