One of the unforgettable images I have of my mother shows her preparing to do our laundry, sometime in the late 1940s. She is in the backyard, leaning over an old black washpot filled with water that has been brought to a boil over an open fire. She holds in her hand a large piece of homemade lye soap and is using a small kitchen knife to shave off thin pieces into the hot water.
That image was brought sharply into focus this week as I read a story in the Wall Street Journal about a new “do it yourself” (DIY) movement. People all over this country are making their own laundry soap, toothpaste, mascara and even personal deodorant. The article included a photo of a woman grating a bar of soap to use in making her homemade laundry detergent, and that made me think of the “primitive” way my mother once had to wash our clothes in that old black pot.
My first thought was, “OK, DIYers: Raising chickens in your backyard to produce your own eggs I can understand, but trying to concoct your own laundry soap, toothpaste and deodorant is way beyond my comprehension.” Moreover, my few childhood encounters with homemade lye soap convinced me that buying a bar of Lifebuoy or even Lava (which contained scratchy pumice) was a great improvement.
According to this article, the Procter & Gamble Company, which makes Tide (the best selling detergent) has done research that shows 17% of American households say they have tried making their own detergent and 1% claim to use their own homemade version for every load of laundry.
These DIY experiments are not done to save time or money. For example, one woman’s recipe for dishwasher detergent calls for four lemons (diced), white vinegar, kosher salt and water. It also requires using a blender and going through several different stages of boiling and simmering the mixture. A fresh batch has to be made every two weeks and kept in the refrigerator to keep it from spoiling. One could easily wash the dishes by hand in the sink while making this dishwasher solution.
The ones I have most difficulty believing in are men’s toiletries, like deodorant made from baking soda and coconut oil. One of the DIY gurus says, “Everyone’s body is different. If you sweat a lot you can add arrowroot powder. If you stink, put in more essential oils (like avocado or eucalyptus) to mask that.”
As for the overall purpose or motivation behind this movement, one website (“good girl gone green”) states: “Take a moment and imagine that your cupboards are full of toxic-free, healthy products for your family to use. Imagine that you’ve found (easy/healthy) ways to soothe a cold, remedy an achy tummy, and keep the chemicals and toxins at bay. Imagine that you’ve added (a little) more green to your life while protecting the people you love.”
Right now I don’t have that much imagination. Maybe I should have asked my mother how she made that lye soap. I do remember that it was a byproduct of our butchering a hog.
Dr. Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches senior citizens how to write their life stories. A new class begins at Grayson College on March 8. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.