Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, October 2019, The Wisdom of Butlers Past

Steven FerryThe Wisdom of Butlers Past

by Steven Ferry


Following last month’s article, a question was raised about the “chamber lye” not being “thrown down the sink.” For a complete answer, we turn to

“Lye soap was the soap of pioneer America, a mixture of boiled animal fat and lye: lye made from water run through ashes from a wood fire. This had been the basic recipe for many centuries and produced a dark soft soap known as black soap. The lye could be used on its own for laundry, or with soap as a second line of attack.

“Lye can mean various different alkaline concoctions. Some people favored burning particular kinds of plants for the best lye: seaweed ash produced fine Spanish soap for sale in England, while cherrywood was deprecated in the Appalachians. Apple and pear had a stronger bleaching effect than some wood ash. Areas with plentiful bracken burnt that for lye, and potato plants produced “weed ash” in Ireland. The dictionary (OED) says lye can be ‘any detergent material used in washing’ and may even be ‘urine used as a detergent.’

“Chamber lye was a useful laundry product, even though it couldn’t be made into soap. Precious urine collected from chamber pots, its many uses included stain removal and pre-wash soaking. It also removed natural oils from wool, and set dyes, not to mention its many uses in medicine. In some areas of the UK it was called ‘lant”, ‘weeting,’ or ‘wash.'”

“Before that you suffer it to be washed, lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do ’till you find they be quite out.” Hannah Woolley, The Compleat Servant-Maid, 1677

Extracted from the 1823 book, The Footman’s Directory and Butler’s Remembrancer, re-published in hardback by Pryor Publications. Quotes in this article courtesy of the “Old and Interesting” website referred to in paragraph one above.

You may obtain your discounted copy (with free s&h) by emailing the publisher: Mr. Pryor (alan AT

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