January 25, 2017

18th Century Castile Soap: For Shaving, Laundry and Weight Loss

I've finally gotten around to making the soap I've been researching for the last few months! Castile soap is one of the most basic soaps out there. It was a common soap in the 18th century and is even still used today.

In the 18th century soap came in two forms: hard soap and soft soap. Hard soap traveled easier around the house but soft soap was cheaper and easier to make at home. Not all soap was home made; soap boilers manufactured soap in bulk and both hard soap and soft soap were available to purchase in stores by the pound. Soap boilers also worked as chandlers as the ingredients and processes were similar.

In colonial times, soap was made by leeching lye out of hardwood ashes. The lye was then mixed with a fatty acid, typically tallow, lard or oil. It was difficult to gauge the strength of lye. Mrs. Child stated in The American Frugal Housewife (1828), that you could test the strength of lye by seeing if the lye was strong enough to float a potato or egg.  Some 18th century books recommended buying it from a soap boiler, instead of trying to make it at home.1 The mixture was cooked over a fire and stirred until saponification took place. If hard soap was wanted, salt or unslaked lime was added to the mixture. The mixture was then poured into barrels or molds depending on the type of soap. Soap was then left to cure. Hard soap, like Castile soap benefits from a cure time of over 6 months.

Castile soap is a soap made with olive oil. It was sometimes called "white soap," "olive soap," or "Marseilles soap," the latter name describing the source of a large manufacturer. Colonists used this soap for everything from laundry to luxury toiletries.

Razor maker,  Benjamin Kingsbury, thought Castile was the best soap for shaving. "The best soap for the purpose of shaving which I have yet found ... is the Olive-soap, made with olive-oil by a person well acquainted with the process of soap-making, and who, in making it, had in view the vision of a thick and durable lather..."2 Many luxurious toiletries called for Castile soap as a base to hold fragrances.

Castile was also used medicinally. It was seen as safer than other soaps to take internally because olive oil was safe to ingest. One anecdote from a physician relates the treatment of a patient who suffered from "corpulence" and gout.

He began to take it July, 1754, at which time he weighed 20 stone and 11 pound...He took every night at bed-time, a quarter of an ounce of common home-made Castile Soap, dissolved in a quarter of a pint of soft water. In about two months time, he began to feel more freedom...his bulk was reduced two whole stone weight...3
Soap was also listed as an ingredient to make chocolate frothy and soap and chocolate was seen as a cure for rheumatic pains.4 Yikes!

I originally started looking into soap making because I read about the harms of antibacterial soap, many of which are now banned by the F.D.A. for causing problems with the brain, hormones,  immune systems and reproductive systems. On top of the health risk they also cause an environmental risk. After the soap goes down the drain, the antibacterials continue to kill, killing many healthy necessary bacteria and algae in our waterways. I was looking for a healthier alternative to use and ended up where I always do: Looking at what our foremothers were doing and found a perfect replacement. I didn't want to make this post a tutorial because soap making is dangerous and one post is not enough to teach the process but I will be making a post on how to make 18th century luxury wash balls using pre-made Castile which can be bought almost anywhere, so stay tuned for that!    


1 Hill, John. A history of the materia medica. Containing descriptions of all the substances used in medicine ; ... By John Hill .. London: Printed for T. Longman, C. Hitch and L. Hawes, 1751

2 .Kingsbury, Benjamin. A treatise on razors: in which the weight, shape, and temper of a razor, the
means of keeping it in order, and the manner of using it, are particularly considered ... Vol. 9. London: Sold by the author, 1810.

The Critical Review, or Annals of Literature. Vol. 9. London: A. Hamilton, 1760.

4  Leake, John. Medical instructions towards the prevention, and cure of chronic or slow diseases peculiar to women: especially, those proceeding from over-delicacy of habit called nervous or hysterical... London: Printed for R. Baldwin, 1777.

January 1, 2017

The Pesky Colonial "New Year"

William Hogarth, 1755

There's something funny about Colonial dates. You'll see someone in a church record born on the 10th, but on their tombstone, it says the 21. This problem shows up frequently in genealogical research. People reason away the discrepancy:

They just didn't keep good records back then.
The church log must be recording the baptism date not the birth date.
The family but have misremembered the date at burial.
Birthdays weren't a big thing so they probably forgot it.
A lot of people couldn't read back then so their parents must have told it to them wrong.

The list goes on and on and these theories are possible but even if you ignore those pesky discrepancies there's still another thing that's weird about Colonial dates. Sometimes people double dated things. 1752/3. Well which was it?

Julian or Gregorian Calendars?

Much of this confusion is due to how people kept time. During the early 18th Century, most of the British empire was using the Julian calendar, a calendar of 365.25 days first put into use by Julius Cesar in 46 BC. But by the 1700s problems arose with the calendar. Most Roman Catholic nations were using the Gregorian calendar, which caused confusion in international affairs and the math was flawed so there ended up being a lot of odd leap years and religious holidays drifted too far away from their celestial markers.

In an attempt to reconcile the differences, the Parliament decided to change over to the Gregorian calendar in 1751/52. Confusing already? The Gregorian calendar was enacted in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. It was a calendar of 365.2425 days and reduced the number of leap years while aligning holidays closer with the lunar calendar.

Happy New Year's Day, Again

At this time, Parliament also decided to pick a standard date for the ambiguous term "New Years." Prior to 1752, New Year's Day could fall on March 25th, January 12th, or January 1st depending on what year it was, your location, and what calendar you were using. While most people generally accepted January 1st as the start of the new year, the legal new year was March 25th.

Sometimes double dating was to bridge confusion between the Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar but other times it was an attempt to bridge the January 1st New Year with the legal new year, especially for dates written between the two. Sometimes both dates were written out full but many times were just written with a slash: 1751/2.  At the time of the calendar transition the designations O.S. (Old Style) and N.S. (New Style) were also sometimes used to eliminate confusion.

That's a Nice 11 Days You've Got There, It would be a Shame If Something Happened to Them 

Part of reconciling the two calendars meant losing days. The members of Parliament chose 11 days in September to eliminate.September 3 to September 14th didn't exist in 1752. If you think people get upset over losing an hour during Daylight Savings time you can only imagine the uproar losing 11 days caused. There was a whole lot of grumbling but little more than complaining happened. The William Hogarth painting (Above) shows a banner that reads "Give us our Eleven Days."
All these changes did cause disagreements at the time and have made it hard for modern day genealogists to keep in order. For instance, George Washington was born on February 11, 1731, before the calendar change. He celebrated his 21st birthday on February 22, 1753, despite having already been 21 for a year. It's clear how the calendar change could easily cause confusion with indentured servitude obligation, rent payments and age based inheritances. George Washington's tomb reflects the date change and lists him as being born in 1732.

Hope Everyone has a great New Year 2017 N.S.!  

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