From accounts of the Babylonians in 2800 BC to the famous bath houses of the Roman Empire, soap has a rich history. We can read of the ancient Egyptians’ regular bathing habits, the Bible’s detailed laws governing personal cleanliness, and the blocks of clay, stone, pumice and ash used for washing by the Greeks. The fall of the Roman Empire led to the loss of bathing habits, a loss that would lead to over a thousand years of filth. The lack of cleanliness contributed to the great plagues of the Middle Ages and the Black Death in the 14th century. It wasn’t until the 17th century that ideas of cleanliness and bathing began to reemerge.
18th century America was smelly. Towns and cities both lacked the cleanliness we are used to today. Farm yards were strewn with animal waste, outhouses were common, and they smelled, especially on hot summer days. City sidewalks weren’t any better. They were covered with animal manure and waste tossed out windows. The markets dumped their rotted vegetables, meat and fish in the streets and harbor. On top of that, the lack of bathing and infrequency of which laundry was done left clothes dirty and people smelly.
At the beginning of the 19th century, families washed in the kitchen, an open public space. Time wasn’t taken to heat water so baths were cold. In the winter a layer of ice had to be broken through to even reach the water in the basin. Washing wasn’t easy or comfortable. This was slowly starting to change, though. By the early 1800s, New Englanders were becoming more conscious about bathing and the importance of soap. One of the first steps that led to more frequent bathing was the moving of the washing equipment—washstand, basin and ewer—from the kitchen to the bed chamber. This increase in privacy for the bather led to more frequent baths.
There was also the issue of soap. Most families couldn’t afford to purchase soap, which meant they had to make their own, not a simple process in the 1800s and one that was undertaken only once a year. Two key ingredients were needed to make soap: potassium hydroxide (or lye) and fat oils. Both of these items could be procured at home, but making the lye was a five day process. First, a wooden barrel with holes bored into the bottom would be filled with wood ash saved from the fireplace. The barrel would then be placed on top of bricks so that a pail or tub could be placed beneath. Warm water was poured over the ashes, saturating them just enough so no water leached through to the pail. The wet ashes would then be left to sit for five days while the water reacted with the wood ash. After five days, boiling water would be poured over the ashes, letting it run through. This leached out the lye. At this point, the lye mixture had to be tested. An egg would be placed in the mixture. If it sank to the bottom, the mixture was too weak and the leaching process had to be repeated. If the egg floated on top it was too strong and water had to be added to dilute it. If the egg floated halfway in the mixture the concentration was perfect. For every gallon of lye water, a pound of lard was added, followed by salt to help the mixture solidify. The mix was then poured into rectangular wooden containers and left to harden. Family members would cut off chunks as needed throughout the year.
Unlike the variety of fancy colored and scented soaps in stores today, soap in the 1800s was plain and purely functional. Two types of soap existed—soft soap and hard soap. Soft soap was created by omitting the salt from the mixing process. By not adding salt, the mixture maintained a jelly like state, which foamed more easily when mixed with water. Families stored soft soap in a wooden barrel and spooned it out as needed. Soft soap was used for dishes and washing the floors, while hard soap was used for bathing and laundry.
Soap making was a chore for families. Hard living conditions in the 1800s didn’t make bathing easy. However, the American people on the whole were becoming more and more conscientious about cleanliness in general. This awareness, along with advancing technology, slowly led to a cleaner society—in both person and town. By the mid-1800s sewers were being introduced to cities, which aided greatly in cleaning up their dirt and stench. Indoor plumbing made an appearance in the late-1800s, which also led to a drastic improvement in personal hygiene. While the standards of cleanliness still left much to be desired in the early 1800s, awareness was slowly changing society for the better.