A Trio of Chores
Our pioneer ancestors had daily or weekly chores that either sustained life, or simply made it easier. The Women had cooking, baking, sewing and a host of other things to do between bearing and raising children. Butter, soap and candle making were three such chores and will be the focus of this month’s page.
Butter was used as it is today, to make foods taste better, sauté base and to keep jams and jellies from foaming over during cooking. Often it was a social statement, bartering tool or just a way of being gracious to company. Some women who had access to a lot of milk, might have sold it to wealthier neighbors who chose not to make their own.
My Great Grandmother sold both her butter and eggs to buy books so she could teach her children to read.
Butter making was a simple task, but time-consuming. Often the churning process would be "farmed out" to the older children, or done while rocking a baby to sleep. First the woman must milk her cows and store the milk in a cool spot till the cream rises to the surface where it is skimmed off. There are then 2 ways of making the butter; one is by using the sweet cream, the second is by letting the cream sour first.
In most cases, the second was preferred as the butter was easier to make and it kept longer. The clabbering process is as follows: The cream was put into a churn to set for 1 to 3 days. In the summer the cream would be poured into the churn one evening and churned the next day. If temperatures were not warm enough, perhaps the process would take 3 days, or the homemaker would set her churn near the hearth, turning it once in a while. The maker determined when it was ready to churn by testing to see if the cream held together solidly and pulled away from the sides of the churn. Leaving it to curdle for too little or for too long would make the process harder and the product inferior, so a good homemaker learned just the right time to do her churning. She then churned for 30 to 40 minutes, till globs of butter collected on the surface of the liquid. Then she carefully mixed or dashed till all the butter gathered together. Some women rinsed the butter right away and added salt. Others just put it away to cool. I prefer mine rinsed well with cool water. Then I stir a bit of salt into it and drain any liquid from it before storing.
Using sweet milk followed the same process, but definitely took longer to churn. The liquid left over from the butter making process was "buttermilk." It was used as we do today in cooking or as a special treat instead of fresh milk – it retained tiny bits of the butter and had a rich tart taste. If there was excess, it might have been given to hogs or chickens to supplement their food sources.
Churns differed as time went on or in relationship to one’s financial status. The earlier ones were made of simple buckets and the dasher was made of a couple of pieces of wood nailed in a cross shape onto the bottom of a long straight pole (perhaps an old broom handle). This was pulled up and pushed down through the cream to agitate it. A neat housekeeper would probably have draped a cloth over it to keep from splashing her whole house with the soured milk.
Churns became more sophisticated over time, by building them into larger, more tapered affairs with a tight fitting lid through which the handle protruded. Or, they were made of glass or pottery. They have become collector’s items, selling for hundreds of dollars today. I’ve even seen elaborate "Rube Goldberg" setups that one could use while rocking; the rocking chair being attached by various contraptions to the handle of the dasher causing it to go up and down.
By putting the cream into a jar and holding it in one arm while holding a nursing infant in the other and rocking in her chair by the fire, a woman could do two things at once. Only small amounts of butter could be made this way, but if a family was small, or there was little available milk, it was an efficient use of time.
To make butter pretty, molds were made. They came in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with designs ranging form extremely plain and delicate to bizarre. Here is an example of one type. The butter was shaped into a round about the size of the press, and the press was placed over it. When the handle was pushed down it formed the cake into a neat shape and put a design into the top of it. Sometimes rectangular boxes were made into which the butter was pressed. The lid made a design on the top of the loaf, and the butter was stored in the box. One did not store butter in the round press. Nothing tastes better than sweet homemade butter on fresh hot homemade bread. Unless it's the two with homemade jam.
A few additional facts:
After the butter was made, it was removed from the churn or jar and put into a bowl where a butter paddle could be used to press out the liquid. The paddle was made of wood and had grooves in it, along which the liquid would flow as the soft butter was squeezed against the bowl.
Generally cooling of the butter was accomplished by storing it in cool, running water, or down a well. In either case, it was likely covered with a cloth soaked in grease, secured tightly to keep out the water. Crocks with tight-fitting lids were also used before jars came along.
There were also many ways of preserving the butter. Most of them called for saltpeter, sugar, salt and airtight containers.
Light was very important in early homes. There were not many windows and the homemaker often needed to extend the amount of time she had for her chores. Sources ranged from torches, to oil lamps, candles or our today's array of lights. Candles were safer than torches, and perhaps easier to secure than oil lamps. Although different waxes were available, the most readily available and, some say, the safest, was beeswax. Most of our candles are made with Paraffin wax, but that was not readily available until about 1857.
If a person could not find a bee tree and extract their own wax, one could barter with a neighbor who kept bees. Wax is the substance of which the honeycomb is constructed. Wicks were made of thick cotton thread that had been dipped in wax, straightened and dried prior to making the candles. [See the links at the bottom for more details on the process as well as its history.]
This is one of the best –– http://www.cybertours.com/~midnitebee/html/beeswax_history.html
Candles can be either hand-dipped with a rather freeform shape, or poured into molds.
They can also be used for more than just light. This one was used as a timer for courting purposes and is called the Courting Candle. A father would set the candle on the porch and tell the couple that when the candle burned down to the top of its holder, the young man must go home. If a father (or the girl) did not care for the suitor, the candle would be lowered. On the other hand a favored suitor would have the candle raised to its highest level. My husband quipped, "Yes, and it showed how smart the fellow was. If he let the candle burn out too soon, he didn't deserve the time he had!" Raising and lowering was accomplished by means of the pin at the bottom.
Wax must be carefully melted and often a double pot system was used. The pot with the melting wax, was set into a pot of water. Great care had to be taken to keep the wax from getting into the flames; it could cause the fire almost to explode. Also, the wax gets so hot, it can scald one, so this is another hazardous undertaking. And they didn't get paid for it! Think what we would get these days — hazardous duty pay, insurance, etc. When the wax was melted, a long handled ladle was used to scoop out wax and to pour it into a mold. The mold (or molds) had been set up with wicks suspended into each segment. Or it was dipped out of the container into another one (or the melting container was removed from over the fire). Wicks were repeatedly dipped into the hot wax and allowed to dry until the desired size candle was achieved.
Photos of drying drip type candles. These were made at the Heritage days Festival at Florida Caverns.
Here are some pages on the history of candle making:
This is a long process if you start where our ancestors did. They saved fats from the animals they slaughtered (primarily beef and sheep), saved ashes from the fires for lye and then laboriously turned them into cleaning products. The soap they made was used to wash their dishes, clothes and bodies. Homemade soap is one of the best stain removers I know of! That which was used on their bodies was well aged, the lye mellowing the longer the soap dried.
Once a sufficient quantity of fat was accumulated, lye had to be made. Often ashes were put into a barrel with hay for filtering purposes. Water was poured over them and the lye leached out through holes in the bottom. Today lye soap is made with lye purchased in hardware stores or cleaning sections of groceries. Red Devil is one brand. Our forebears had no recipes for their product, but used about a gallon of lye (that they had leached) to two pounds of rendered fat. In the Foxfire books, volume 2, there was a family that used a feather to stir the pot. If the lye ate the feather, they knew they needed to add more fat to neutralize the lye. They did so until it no longer damaged a feather. The combination of fat and lye must be cooked and stirred until it gets to the thickness of a good jelly. This makes a soft soap, which hardens somewhat upon drying, but will not be quite like what you are used to. At the jelly stage, it is poured into an enameled pan or something made of glass - never use aluminum when working with soap, the lye will eat through the pan and it will ruin most other metal pans except for cast iron. It was allowed to sit over night and then cut into cakes, removed from the pan and stored.
Adding salt to the soap makes a harder soap. Sometimes botanicals were put into a container of soap to perfume it then when the soap was cut the leaves were removed. Wild ginger leaves were commonly used. When I make soap at home, I like to make my soap then grate it, melt it and add things to it. If I have time, I will pour it into smaller containers and add things to them. I have never experimented with adding anything for perfume while the product is cooking and I am not sure you can. My favorite thing to add is Chamomile. I grate homemade soap and melt it in a strong tea of chamomile. It smells wonderful and brings out the highlights in blond hair.
Here is a segment of an article by Diana Branch McMasters as printed in "The Natural Formula Book for Home & Yard."
"Until you get involved with exotic oils, scents and colors, fat will be the one ingredient that leads to the most variation in the character of your soap. Tallow is freshly rendered beef fat, while lard is from pork. Tallow yields a harder, longer-lasting soap that is preferable to that made from lard. Leftover drippings from bacon, hamburger and the like can be saved and used to produce soap that cleans well. But it is the old-fat smell of this same yellow-colored soap that has given homemade soap a bad name. To get milder-smelling soap, you can wash and deodorize fats after rendering.
For white, sweet-smelling soap that needs no deodorizing, use fat trimmings either fresh from the butcher or kept fresh by freezing." Trim all bits of meat, vein or non-fat items from fat, cut small and melt over low heat. This process of rendering the fat is best completed by straining through cheesecloth.
Diane suggests you wash leftover fats by melting them down, then boiling them with equal parts of water and 1 teaspoon of alum or baking powder per quart. Boil about 10 minutes, then cool and skim the congealed fat from the surface of the water. Discard impurities stuck to the underside. Cooking potatoes in the fat will further remove odors. "Caution: Fats are extremely flammable and should not be melted down over high heat or left unattended," she adds.
A simple recipe from Diane:
6 cups freshly rendered tallow
3/4 cup lye
2 1/2 cups cold soft water<
Melt the fat and allow to cool to 125 degrees; mix water and lye in enameled or porcelain pot stirring till melted (best done with an old broomstick or other long piece of wood, also do outdoors if possible and avert your eyes and try not to inhale the fumes. Lye is very toxic and corrosive.) Let cool to 93 degrees. Then in a thin stream pour the lye mixture into the fat stirring constantly till it gels. This may take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour and is best checked for doneness by dropping a thin stream of the mixture back into the pot. If it forms a small mound on top of the liquid, it is ready.
Scenting is done just before putting it into molds, or by using an herbal tea that sets overnight, as part of the water used to mix the lye.
There are many good soap making recipes on the internet as well as in your local library. Read more about it!
One of the best pages I have seen on the history and manner of soap making is:
They have done such a good job that I have only added a bit of my own.