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Excerpt from page 3 - Soap Comes to America
In the American colonies, soapmaking was as important as spinning, weaving, candlemaking, and other common domestic skills. Fats were rendered form slaughtered livestock. Trees, especially hardwoods, were burned to create a fine ash. The ashes were kept in a leaching barrel - a large wooden barrel with a plugged hole near the base.
A thin layer of stones was placed in the bottom, then the barrel was filled with straw and ashes. Leaching barrels were kept close to the house or barn where they could catch rain runoff. Once the ashes in the leaching barrel were saturated, the plug was removed and enough lye-water for a batch of soap was drained into a non-metal container.
A common test of the lye-water's strength was to dip a feather in it. If the feather dissolved, the lye-water was strong enough to make soap. If not, the water was poured back into the leaching barrel to strengthen. The caustic lye-water could easily burn the skin and the added danger of stirring a kettle filled with hot fats over an open fire made soapmaking hazardous.
In 1621, soap ash was an important and lucrative export from America to England, providing the colonies with a much needed source of income. Settlements in what are now Maine and New Hampshire gained great wealth from soap ash and fat exports to England.
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