Melondy Reynolds Phillips
Lye was an important homemade chemical on the colonial frontier.
People who lived on the frontier didn’t have the luxury of running to a store when needing basic essentials. They used what they had on hand to make do.
Fires were almost always kept burning in homes. The fires were used for cooking and warmth, but also for cooling in the summer. Doors kept open while a fire burned created a cool draft through the log cabin as the hot air lifted up and out through the chimney. With constant fires, there was always a good supply of ashes.
A lye hopper was an essential appliance on a frontier homestead. A basic hopper could be made from an old barrel or a simple upside down wooden pyramid. It needed a lid to keep out the rain, and several small holes in the bottom for drainage. In the bottom of the hopper were placed small stones and some straw with the rest being filled with ashes. The hopper sat on a stone or wooded slab, which had a groove or V-shape cut into it to direct the lye into a nearby pail. Water would be poured on top of the ashes at a rate of about one-half to one cup every hour or so. If the water was added too quickly, it would not have time to pull the components out of the ash, and it would create a very weak lye. The lye that dripped from the bottom could be run through the ashes multiple times to create a stronger solution.
After a day or so of slowly adding water to the hopper, the lye would start to drip from the bottom. This could be a continual process with more ashes and water being added daily.
The main components of hardwood ashes are calcium carbonate and potassium carbonate.
They also contain around 10% potash, 1% phosphate, many micro-nutrients, and some trace amounts of heavy metals.
When wood ash is combined with water it creates a very alkaline solution called caustic potash or lye. Hardwood ashes are better than soft woods since soft wood is too resinous and affects the quality of the lye produced. Ashes from pear, apple and ash wood have a strong bleaching action. For more delicate linen, ashes from ferns are preferred.
Lye water was used for laundering clothes. Bucking – soaking in the lye water – broke down the dirt and grease in clothing and the lanolin in wool. It also helped with setting dyes. White linen that had yellowed would be washed and then soaked in lye water for about a day and placed in the sun, generating a bleaching effect.
For a tough stain and spot remover, fullers’ earth or ashes would be added to the lye water and rubbed into the spot. After the mixture dried, it would be brushed off or lightly dampened and rubbed off.
Mixing lye with a fatty substance spawns a chemical reaction called saponification. By using these two simple ingredients, people could make soap. Due to their limited resources and lack of modern day testing kits, after finishing the soap, a “zap” test was done. Someone would quickly take a small lick of the bar of soap. If the person felt a “zap” on their tongue, the lye was too strong and the resulting soap wouldn’t be used on human skin.
Corn was an easy to grow and store crop on the frontier, and it had many uses. Breads, hominy, mush, porridge, grits and animal feed all came from corn. Harvesting “green corn,” before it dried, was roasted or made into “green corn soup.”
Most corn was left on the stalk until it had fully dried. This dried dent corn, still in the husk, was stored in corncribs until needed, while some corn was ground into flour. Roasting corn (parched corn) changed the taste and structure and made it a stable snack for long journeys.
Hominy, made from corn, also had many different uses. To make hominy, simmer dried whole corn, dent corn, in lye water until the skins and dark tips fall off. Rinse the corn with clean water several times to remove the lye. An alternate method is to add clean ashes, only wood burned, into a pot of water and then add the corn. Simmer and rinse the same way.
Using lye to turn corn into hominy had many benefits. The process changes the corn’s chemistry. The niacin in the corn becomes more bioavailable which helped prevent pellagra (a mineral deficiency disease). The lye adds calcium to the corn, makes the protein within the corn more complete, and reduces the risk of mycotoxins.
Hominy can be eaten on its own, added to soups, chilies and other dishes, or used to make masa for corn tortillas.
Another common use for lye was bucking and graining deer hides. The bucking and graining process included soaking the hide in lye water to help remove the grain and hair. All the hides were called buckskins, or bucks, because of this bucking and graining process. Once the grain was removed and the lye neutralize, the hides were dried. At this point they were called half dressed hides, and they felt thin and stiff.
The half dressed hides could be taken to the store to barter. In the 1700s, bartering was based on tobacco currency and had set rules. One shilling was the same as 10 pounds of tobacco or one pound of half dressed deer hides. Hides in this form could be easily stacked, stored and exported on ships without rotting, so this form was preferable.
The store weighed the dried hides, and you could purchase the supplies you needed. Half dressed hides were used so much as a form of currency that when someone said, “I need five bucks,” they are literally asking for five pounds of half- dressed deer hides.
So many of the sayings you hear today are from something specific in the past.
The times and behaviors in our history that were troublesome should be taught to the next generation so they do not repeat them – but there are also many fascinating and exciting things to learn from the past.
Some of that knowledge is fading with time…