How We Made Soap
by Norris Chambers
One summer I left our backwoods domain and traveled to Fort Worth. Although jobs were almost non-existent, I managed to find employment in a small soap factory, and lived it up on $4.00 a week salary. There were fringe benefits, however. I slept on a cot inside the factory, and doubled for a watchman. It was sure dark and still in that big old building, and every noise reminded me that it might be a burglar messing around and looking for some country boy steak. But nothing like that happened. I guess they figured there wasn't anything in that smelly place that they needed. There certainly wasn't any money.
So I got an education in soap making, packaging and marketing. I went back to the country thinkmg that I could be a big soap maker. Of course it would be on a smaller scale.
I explained my plan to Clifton, who was always ready to try a new venture. The tractor driving for the summer and fall was finished, and there wasn't any work for two poor country boys to do. We would make soap and peddle it to the grocery stores, cafes and other places that had a need for it.
All of our lives we had made lye soap from hog fat, and we understood that process pretty well. But I had found out that real soap makers used a liquid called "caustic" instead of lye. Where I had worked, they had a big steel tank in the basement with the top protruding through the first floor. There was a faucet on the bottom, and a fire was lighted underneath the tank. On the first floor we poured the fat in the tank. This ingredient varied with the type of soap being made, but was usually either coconut oil, hog fat or beef tallow. The tallow was obtained by cooking bones in a big vat outside the building. The bones were free if we hauled them from the stock yard. It was a dirty job, but for $4.00 a week I had no complaints. The caustic was poured into the fat, and the mixture was cooked. We made liquid soap, used for dish washing and scrubbing, by draining it out in the basement into a barrel. If we wanted soap flakes, we cooked it a little longer. We also used a better grade of fat for the flakes.
The barrel was placed on a hand operated elevator and raised to the second floor. There it was poured into a big wooden hopper, built like an inverted pyramid. At the bottom, and at floor level, there was a rapidly revolving blade similar to a fan. When the hot liquid hit this fan, it came out below in great white flakes, like an arctic snow storm. A room had been built under the fan, and the soap flakes floated into the enclosure. The tank held several barrels, and we poured them all into the hopper. Then we went back to the first floor and opened the door to the soap room. There was a mountain of beautiful soap flakes. The other employee and I took shovels and loaded the flakes into wooden barrels.
There were only two of us in the whole plant. The owner spent most of the time in the office, and the one salesman was out selling. The other employee, Bill, and I made deliveries in the old truck that the company owned. The packaging department was a marvel of automation. We had an old pair of scales, about like those seen in a butcher shop. We placed a cardboard carton on the scale, and filled from a barrel with a tin cup. When the scale indicated the right weight, the box was sealed with a swipe of hot glue from a nearby pot, and a lead weight was balanced on top of it to hold it until the glue dried. We pushed these down the long table until they reached the end, then we put them in cartons and glued them in a like fashion. This was real fun. Much of the soap was sold to hotels and boarding houses as a liquid. The packaged soap was sold to stores. We also bottled shampoo, which was nothing more than the soap flakes with some perfume added to the mixture. We put this in bottles with a funnel.
So with this education, we began our venture. We mounted a 55 gallon barrel on some pipes over a pit that we dug in the side of a hill. We could conveniently keep a fire going under it, and could have easy access to the top for pouring in our ingredients. Since I knew where the caustic came from, and the coconut oil, we made a trip to Fort Worth in Clifton's old Model T truck, and brought back all we could afford to buy. We decided to concentrate on the liquid soap first, since the packaging was more involved, and would take longer to set up. We intended to set up our flake machine in a nearby barn at a later date. Since the boss had used a thermometer and a hydrometer to determine when the soap had cooked enough, and was careful not to let us know too much about the temperatures, we would be required to determine by experimentation what was required.
We had mixed some coconut oil, some rank hog lard and all the rancid butter we could find, and had added some caustic. We had about thirty gallons in the 55 gallon drum. So we started our big operation. We built a fire with dead mesquite wood and stood by while it cooked. When the mixture started running over the side of the barrel, we decided we might have a little too much heat, and began pulling some of the burning wood out of the pit. But, believe it or not, the soap started burning. I didn't know soap would burn. It made a dense, black fog and rose into the clean country air like a dirty smoke signal. The fire got so hot we couldn't take any more wood out, and the hotter it got the more it boiled over. Clifton did the only really intelligent thing that had been done all day. He grabbed a wash tub and pitched it over the top of the barrel.
This cut off the fire from the top, and we soon carried enough water from the nearby tank to get the inferno under control. After we got the fire extinguished, we decided to wait until morning when it would be cooled off to see what we had left.
Bright and early the next morning we made a tour of inspection. I lifted off the tub and dipped out a pint. I felt of it, and Clifton felt of it. We decided it might be pretty good liquid soap, but decided to give it a better test by taking some to the house and letting my mother try it. She told us that she had finished the breakfast dishes, but would try it when she cleaned up for dinner. We spent the morning in the blacksmith shop. We were building a sail-mobile out of four bicycle wheels and a ouple of ripped open cotton sacks. We expected the strong southern breezes to carry us up the road. We didn't stop to think how we would get back. The testing of that machine would be another story. I still have a scar today that I acquired on our maiden journey.
But back to the soap - - After a good meal, we stood by to await the verdict. We were pleaded guilty of making inferior soap. My mother said it was greasy. She suggested that we didn't put enough lye in it, or perhaps we didn't cook it long enough. We held a high level conference and decided to cook some more the next morning, using a smaller fire. The next morning came, as they always do, and we prepared to salvage our soap. I looked in the top of the barrel, and I was surprised at how much was missing. We didn't have over fifteen or twenty gallons left, and during the previous afternoon and night, thousands of flies and other insects had accumulated and died in our mixture. We held another conference, and decided that we would add a little more caustic and that it would dissolve the insects. So we proceeded with the production.
By being careful, we avoided another fire. By noon we decided it was ready for another test, and dipped out another hot can full. We were relieved to find that the winged invaders had, indeed, dissolved. The soap might have been a little darker. But we decided that they just added body to it. It might even have produced a better product, and we discussed the idea of adding insects to it deliberately. We didn't decide how we would catch them. This time the verdict was "not guilty" of making bad soap. My mother said it was even better than lye soap. So we went back and started jugging it. By "jugging" I mean that we put it in gallon jugs, which we had scrounged with difficulty. All we had to do now was peddle it to the hotels and cafes in town. Our fortune was made. However, the next morning we found another problem. After thoroughly cooling, the soap had hardened in the jugs, and would not pour out. This proved to be too much of a problem. We tried to heat a jug and pour it out, but the heat broke the jug and the soap spilled on the fire. So we broke the jugs and cut the soap in ugly chunks. It worked well, but we decided it wasn't practical to try to sell it.
The two stock holders, Clifton and me, would have declared bankruptcy if there had been such a thing in those days, and we returned to the blacksmith shop to work on our windmobile. The moral of the story (if it has one) is that if at first you don't succeed, keep trying until it isn't FUN anymore!
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