Making Soap, 1955 Style


I recently found a marvelous brochure, Making Soap at Home from February, 1955. Prepared by Irene Crouch, Extension Agent Home Management, and published by the Extension Service (North Dakota), this little document outlines how to make soap at home.

“A thrifty housewife can save many dollars a year by making soap of good quality.”

Fats or Grease to Use

We, nowadays, tend to lean toward vegetable fats that are already cleaned and prepared, or purchased tallow or lard (also already prepared). Back in the day, however, housewives used any type of meat fats that were available. In the brochure, fairly detailed directions are given on how to prepare fats in three different classes:

  • Fats rendered from tallows, meat trimmings, rinds and other meat scraps
  • Meat fryings and other refuse fats
  • Cracklings

(I wonder how many pounds of bacon you’d need to make in order to use the resultant bacon fat to make a pound of soap…?)


The preliminary directions for making soap are pretty simple, “follow the directions on the lye can.”

Luckily, following that, there is “An Easy Recipe” to make 9 pouts of “pure, hard, smooth soap suitable for toilet, laundry or soap flakes”:

  • 1 can lye [it doesn’t say what size can]
  • 2 1/2 pints cold water
  • 6 pounds clean fat (about 6 3/4 pinks or 13 1/2 measuring cups of liquid fat)

The how-to section is pretty straight-forward (mix to trace, pour into molds, cover with blankets, leave it undisturbed for 24 hours and then unmold. There is some additional information about temperatures for the oils and lye solution which I hadn’t seen elsewhere, in particular giving specific temperatures when using “soft rancid fat” (yes, you can make soap with rancid fat).

There was something somewhat unique that I hadn’t ever seen before having to do with the mold. It says to pour the mixture into a “wooden box that has been soaked in water and lined with a clean cotton cloth dipped in water and wrung nearly dry”. The cotton cloth is used to pull the soap from the mold. I assume there is something about soaking the wood in water and using a damp cotton cloth that keeps the soap from sticking too badly. If you’ve ever tried this method, please post a comment!

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8 responses to “Making Soap, 1955 Style”

  1. Donna

    I’m thinking that back in the day there was Red Devil Lye, no choice of sizes so they wouldn’t have thought to write down a size.

  2. Love vintage instructions like these! I am very curious about the information about using rancid fat for making soap. Seems like it would result in some rather stinky soap!

    1. Marie Gale

      Yes, use of rancid oils is questionable. I have seen reference to it in some of my older soapmaking books. In all cases, complete saponificiation is excepted in the finished soap (no superfat or lye discount, which would leave unsaponified rancid oils). In fact, in most cases where rancid oils are referenced, the soapmaking process includes over-lye’ing and then neutralizing the soap (in a commercial manufacturing process).

      I did find this quote about Toilet Soap Defects (from Modern Soap Making, Thomssen, 1937, pg 147):

      “Oxidations of unsaturated fatty acids is ordinarily considered as the most probable cause of rancidity. It can be stated that if the fats or oils used in making the soap base have been carefully saponified, the rapid oxidation of the fatty acids cannot take place unless they are liberated through some other agent. Therefore, it is important that complete saponification be carried out. If one is sure this has been done, then measures must be taken to prevent the defects from being caused by other conditions.”

      From this, I would take it that rancidity of the oils used in making the soap do not necessarily result in a rancid finished product.

  3. Perhaps the wood swells when wet and then shrinks back to size as it dries….and the soap pulls away from the mold? Just guessing…found your blog very entertaining! Thanks!

    1. Marie Gale

      That’s what I thought. Maybe it stops the wood from absorbing the moisture in the soap since it’s already saturated?

  4. The lining of the mold with a damp cloth was done by my mother and grandmother. Yes, it does help for the soap not to stick to the mold.

    1. Marie Gale

      How interesting! Do you have any idea if it’s easier (or harder) to deal with than, say, butcher paper?

      1. I’ve never seen them use butcher paper, so that I don’t know.

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