Colonial Soap Making

Throughout history, people who lived near water have always known about its ability to cleanse. It wasn't until the invention and development of soap, however, did people learn of better methods of cleansing. The history of soap making is a long and interesting story that spans centuries of discovery and experimentation. One of the most interesting parts of that history is the part of colonial soap making.

Colonial soap making started with the development and settling of the colonies in the “new world”. In the beginning, however, a lot of the soap used in the colonies came from Europe. These bars (actually measured out in barrels known as “firkins”) were brought over by ship. Every time a ship would come to visit, either to bring supplies or to bring more settlers, soap was part of the cargo. Early colonists had to trade whatever goods they had for their supplies of soap.

Eventually, however, colonists realized that this was becoming costly. They also realized that they really had all the materials they needed to make their own soap. They had animal fat from the animals they killed for food, vegetable oils from the various plant crops they grew, and plenty of ash from their fires and other household activities. Since knowledge of the methods for making soap were brought by soap makers who moved to the various colonies, colonial soap making began.

At first, colonial soap making took place during the late fall and early winter. It was a yearly event that followed the butchering of animals in the fall. Farmers and butchers often butchered their animals before it became too cold in the winter when it was costlier to care for more animals. The animal meat was eaten throughout the winter, while the fats were used for soap making. Other farmers chose to make their soaps in the spring, however, using the saved ashes from winter fires and excess oil from their cooking.

In its early stages, colonial soap making was a household chore. It was colonial women who made soap for their household's personal use, especially since it was often used to clean household items. Such was the case in Jamestown, Virginia. As colonies developed and grew, however, and as more travelers arrived, the demand for soap increased. Pretty soon, a reversal of roles took place. Instead of colonists waiting for boats in order to purchase soap, they began selling soap to the people who came off the boats.

Thus the colonial soap making industry began. The industry stayed small for a long period of time, since many people still chose to make their own soap at home. However, with the discovery and popularization of certain innovations regarding the chemistry of soap making, as well as the discovery of electric power, colonial soap making propelled into a more widespread and fast growing industry. Needless to say, it became profitable to be a soap maker in America.

Soon, large scale production of soap became a possibility. Soap making manufacturers set up companies which could produce soap bars on a massive scale thanks to the coming of soap making machines. Soap began to develop more varieties than before, and soap making companies themselves promoted awareness of the relationship between using soap for cleanliness and long term health.