The following first appeared in the Aug. 13, 1996, Tribune.
Two things I remember from early childhood are that soap suds in our eyes made my brother and me cry and that blowing soap bubbles made us happy. The colorful bubbles were beautiful, and they grew larger if we blew carefully. They floated off our hands, changing shapes as the wind carried them high. Too soon they exploded into nothingness.
Mom tricked my brother and me into washing our dirty hands by teaching us to make bubbles. We had a washpan outdoors on a bench near the cistern. She taught us to make an oval soap film between our index finger and thumb. Then we'd blow carefully on that film and watch our bubbles grow and reflect colors. Too soon they'd waver and burst.
By the 1940s, manufacturers captured that miracle and sold it in bottles with a little wire loop for bubble making. A photography teacher explained soap's miracle saying, "Soap makes water wetter." I use this principle in pottery making as well as for blowing bubbles.
In the last few decades, soap has taken on a new and false significance. We depend on it to keep us attractively clean and sanitary. Advertisers hawk their wares as hard soap, soft soap, face soap, liquid soap, laundry soap and even "non-soap." Old TV commercials showed women in a laundromat, chatting happily about soap, cleanser, bleach and stain removers in the setting of an important social event.
Mothers washed a few things on a brass washboard after rubbing their worst spots with homemade lye soap. Most of the laundry was done in a wooden washing machine with a push-pull mechanism propelled by one foot and one hand. She'd make her own soap for that, too, using waste cooking grease and fat from the kitchen. Lye was a necessary ingredient.
Merry War Lye, which came in a red can, cost about a nickel, but Mom told how people in the "olden days" made lye by collecting wood ashes from fireplaces or stoves. They put them into an open wooden barrel outdoors and tamped them down around the outside edge but left a sort of funnel hole in the middle. After the barrel was partly full, they added water enough to start a trickle of liquid running out a hole in the bottom of the barrel. Rainwater, too, soaked through the wood ashes.
The resulting liquid was lye, which people saved for making soap. My 1900 "White House Cook Book" offers several recipes for making soap. They include hard soap that "crumbles when being cut," soap for "washing without rubbing," soft soap made without cooking, boiled soft soap and "old-style family soft soap."
To make hard soap, use 6 pounds of washing soda and 3 of unslaked lime. Pour on 4 gallons of boiling water, drain and put in 6 pounds of clean grease and/or fat. Boil two hours, stirring most of the time. Thin with 2 gallons of cold water. Put in a handful of salt just before taking it from the fire. Pour it into a wet tub, and let it set until it's solid. It can be "flavored," or scented, just as you turn it out.