Remembering Grandma’s Lye Soap

The General Merchandise store in Virginia City as it might have been 100 years ago.

From brooms to Campbell’s Soup — this re-creation of a Virginia City general store has all the necessary items for an early 1900s home. The cans of Dee’s 98% pure lye are conspicuous near the other cleaning supplies such as Old Dutch Cleanser.

Dee’s 95% pure lye and other shelf goods (notice the original Old Dutch Cleanser label).

What did they use lye for? Right, to make soap. It was an easy process: add the lye to cold water and after it cools down a bit mix it with lard or rendered fat. Pour this mess in a mold and let it age for a few weeks — so it does not burn you. (Do it yourself: on the web at

In 1952, if I recall correctly, my friend and I nearly drove the rest of our school crazy with our singing of the nonsense song “Grandma’s LyeSoap.” Here are a few of the verses:

Do you remember Grandma’s LyeSoap?
Good for everything, everything in the home
And the secret was in the scrubbin’
It wouldn’t suds; It wouldn’t foam.

Mrs. O’Mally, Down in the valley
Suffered from ulcers, I understand
She swallowed a cake, of Grandma’s LyeSoap
Now she’s got the cleanest ulcers in the land!

Little Herman and Brother Thurman
Had an aversion to washing their ears
Grandma scrubbed them with the LyeSoap
And they haven’t heard a word in years.

So sing right out for grandma’s LyeSoap
Good for everything in the home
And the secret was in the scrubbin’
‘Cause it didn’t suds or foam.

So sing right out for Gramdma’s LyeSoap
(Sing it loud and clear)
Good for everything, everything in the place
The pots and kettles, the dirty dishes
And for the hands and for the face.
–By John Standley and Art Thorson, Capitol Records: 1952.

I’ve forgotten the tune, but your can listen to the song on YouTube (careful, the tune will stick in your head for weeks.)

Dance & Stuart General Merchandise store on the main street of Virginia City. Boot Hill is in the background.

The Dance and Stuart General Store still looks pretty good. To the right of the store is the telephone office and in the background is ‘Boot Hill’ where road agents hanged by the Virginia City Vigilantes were buried. The Vigilantes hanged more than 20 rowdies, robbers and road agents. None of the bad guys got much of a trial, but undoubtedly most of them deserved the rough justice they got. I hope so anyway.