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Mission Industry - Soap Making

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Soap was one of many Mission's industries. Since Missions ran large herds of cattle there was always an abundance of animal fat (also known as tallow) which was used to make soap. One steer could easily produce up to 100 pounds of fat to process.

Processing began by rendering the tallow (melting and cooking it) and, after cooking for awhile, the tallow was strained to remove impurities and any remaining large pieces of meat or gristle not removed in the butchering process.

Soap making was usually done in a Jaboneria located some distance (and downwind) from the living quarters. The process of converting the tallow into soap produces a rather unpleasant odor.

Following are the steps taken...

  • Make some lye. During the 1800's lye was formed by passing water through fire ashes. The chemical that drained from the ashes was potassium hydroxide, a form of lye. (Today, if you see a docent making soap at a Mission look under the table; you'll probably see a can of drain cleaner.[smile])
  • Heat the rendered tallow in a large vat or cauldron (Note: If the work was done near any Mission structures you might see the tallow heated in a cauldron of boiling water instead of directly over a fire; this was a protection against the tallow setting afire as fire was the constant enemy of Mission life).

Melting wax
Picture taken 12:00noon 21 Jul 2001

  • When the tallow is boiling add a small amount of the lye made from the wood ashes. Continue stirring and periodically adding more lye.
  • If the mixture clouds, stop adding the lye and continue boiling and stirring, often for several hours, until the mixture clears.
  • Add more lye and continue to boil and stir.
  • After a few more hours add a salt solution (brine) to the mixture. This will cause the soap to float to the top where it can be skimmed off.
  • Put the skimmed soap into another vat and boil again to further refine the mixture.

Rendered tallow
Picture taken 12:35pm 21 Jul 2001

  • Finally, when refined, pour the mixture into wooden frames and allow it to cool and harden.
  • When hard, the frame can be removed and the soap cut into bars.

Soap drying
Picture taken 12:35pm 21 Jul 2001

Soap made this way was fairly caustic and did not lather like modern-day soaps. It also usually had an animal smell to it. But, it was useful for both laundry and personal hygiene if rinsed out so the caustic lye did not stay on the skin or in clothes.

Soap was usually made in quantity and was one of the items Missions used in trading for other goods.


  • No specific references; just a compilation of notes from Mission museum displays and docent activity at the La Purisima Mission.

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Copyright © 2005 Tom Simondi, All Rights Reserved
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