Laundry Soap

Week 24: #52 Ancestors – Dear Diary

By Eilene Lyon

So far I’ve only come across one true diary in the family, which I wrote about last year in Reatha Gusso, 1932. For an entire year, my grandmother kept a daily journal without missing a day. To our knowledge, it’s the only one she ever wrote.

Since it’s been a while since we heard from Smitty (my maternal grandfather, Laurence M. Smith), I thought I’d share one of his briefer tales from the “early days.” I’m sure you’ll be hankering to go back to those simpler times after reading this!

SmithC Farm
The Charles and Mary Lila Smith family near Colville, Washington (or possibly Cunningham Gulch). Undated family photo.
Laundry Soap

By Laurence M. Smith  June 7, 1991

I remember about laundry soap in the days before “Soap Operas.” Laundry soap was home made and ended up as about 3” cubes. Rather brown and white stained. It was kept on open shelves in a shed removed from the main house. This was necessary because it had a powerful smell. It was like limberger cheese in this way, it let you know where it was.


1 ½ gal. soft water (Rain water)

Sal Soda 3 lbs.

Unslacked Lime 1 lb. (Wood Ash)

3 lbs clean grease.

Put the three first articles together and boil to disolve the soda and slack the lime then let settle and pour off the clear liquid and put on the fire again with the grease and boil to proper consistancy.


Soap making was fundamental knowledge for pioneer people, who journeyed across the country to settle in the West. Without soap life would have been less than desirable.

Washing of clothes started with soaking. The night before the clothes were washed they were soaked in the boiler tub.

Wash day started early, by early I mean about 4:00 A.M. A tub of hot water and scrub board were essential.

The cubes of brown soap were applied to the clothes which were then scrubbed up and down on the wash board. After cleaning with soap in hot water the clothes were rinsed in cold water and rung out by hand. They are now ready for the boiler.

The boiler tub is heated on a wood burning range and the clothes are boiled for a considerable spell.

Now, later the clothes are dipped from the boiler with a wooden stick and put in a tub of cold rinse water.

After wringing out by hand the clothes were hung on elevated lines to dry in the breeze and sunshine.

The lady of the house was supposed to get the wash on the line before 8:00 A.M. on a Monday morning. It was a symbol of status in the neighborhood.

All the pioneer women had to do for the rest of the day on Monday was bake bread and clean house. Oh! yes and take care of the kids.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water!

Mary Lila Reams on

60 thoughts on “Laundry Soap

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  1. I spent the day doing laundry, this puts it into perspective. The machine spent the day doing laundry, I just hung it on the line…not by 8 am! I don’t suppose my status is raised by having my laundry on the line, regardless of whether or not it is out by 8am, lol.
    Great ending to the post, love the last photos.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. My mother never made soap but I seem to remember my grandmother did, her husband and son being miners. But I have striking memories of Monday washing day, washboard, dolly tub, dolly legs and the mangle! And this was 1950s! I also remember that in our village nobody was expected to burn rubbish on a Monday, garden rubbish being very common in those days, unless you wanted to be completely ostracised for giving the village smoke smelling clothes!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Oh I love this post, Eilene! It must be completely mind-boggling for most (younger) people to realise what happened in the olden days, and yet it wasn’t all that long ago that we were boiling clothes or making do with the most appalling concoctions for soap. I worked part time, in the early 1970s, in a day nursery (for children aged between 18 months and 5 years) and one of my mornings there was spent boiling floor cloths which I’d have to push around the boiler with a posser. To this day, and even with the loss of a lot of other memories, I still recall the horrible smell of them! (And despite how horrible it was, I treasured those mornings as it gave me a break from the kids who, despite my love of them, were really exhausting!)

    I also remember washboards, though don’t think I ever used one. (Skiffle groups did though, lol!) And there were also wringers – heavy, horrible things. I was never strong enough to turn the handle on ours, but my diminutive mother was!

    It’s so good that you’ve got some of your relatives memories in their own voices or by their own hands. In the 1990s, I recorded my dad’s memoirs (he only agreed to do them if my sister and I were the only recipients) and one of my delights in that was one of the early sessions in which he talked about his grandmother’s Copper – for boiling the washing. Here’s an article about them:

    I adore that photo of the baby. Was that a relative of yours?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We never had to boil or wring, but I do remember the diaper pail (only cloth in those days – maybe we’re trending back that way for the environment). What in earth is a skiffle group? I’ll check out the copper kettle story.
      The baby is my mother on one of the family camping trips. Pure Smitty.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I just replied to this, but it didn’t take (or got grabbed by Akismet. Do you, like me, have your comments set to go through unless they have links or more than one like?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Anyone remember Fels Naptha? It came as a brown bar that you would rub it on stains or cut shavings (or use a grater) into the water to dissolve.

    We never used it for that purpose, instead we used it for whittling. The soft but firm texture made it perfect for carving.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m old enough to remember a washboard and hand wringer. Clothes lines and pegs for sure. Heavy on the loading, heaven-scent on the intake. Methinks hard tasks made people weary, but happy. Cannot recall soap making, but melding of little pieces of worn-down soaps for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My mom hung out the laundry and then ironed everything, even sheets and pillowcases! Some things got starched. I choose to do my physical labor in the garden. Makes me happy. 😊


  6. Oh yes – those days of the soap makers. Being in Cincinnati, Procter & Gamble’s HQ and multiple research centers are here. They started their soap industry because of the availability of fat from the slaughterhouses. …. but first, they were candlemakers. Thanks for sharing a bit more about your family history.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post! You have a treasure since you have your ancestor’s diary. I recently listened to the audiobook of “A Midwife’s Tale” and it’s amazing what history of the area the author put together, just by studying that one woman’s journal! I’m terrible at keeping a journal. I really should make it a point to do better! Thanks for this glimpse into yesteryear!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What an interesting bit of history to have. I often think about how grateful I am for modern conveniences that allow me time for things other than housework.

    And your pictures are amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. With but we always washed like you described in your post. We had only cold water by the way. We always did laundry by hands, with a soap 🧼. Sometimes we boiled our bed clothes (bcz we had electricity :))… in a big pot. For 1 or 2 hrs. Well, then we washed it in cold water.

        Liked by 1 person

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