The History of Laundry and Soap Making in Italy

Soap Making in Italy

A sample of traditional soap made in Italy photo by Fatto in Casa da Benedetta

The history of laundry and soap making in Italy is as long and interesting as our Italian Heritage. Running water for many contadini” in small villages throughout Italy was merely a dream until the 1950’s.  For those who did have running water in their homes, the cost of owning a washing machine was unthinkable due to the less than desirable economy that persisted until the 1970’s.

Considering the historical average size of an Italian family, this was a very daunting task for Italian women.  They would wash delicates only once a week or month.  They would save the large hefty garments to be washed in the springtime. This was when the rivers and wash basins flowed rapidly due to the spring thaw.  

Making soap in #Italy has always been a tradition amongst contadini. Click To Tweet

However, in the summer months, many areas in Italy experienced drought conditions.  This meant that dirty laundry piled up and had to be stored in a separate room in the house until the rivers began to flow freely once again.

Laundry and Soap Making in Italy

Two different types of bigoncio used for doing laundry.

An alternative method of doing laundry was to use a bigoncio which is a large tub on a pedestal traditionally made of chestnut wood.  The laundry would be layered with the smallest items of clothing at the bottom and the largest at the top until the tub was full.

The bigoncio was then covered with a large cloth and amply coated with wood cinders.  Liters and liters of boiling water were slowly poured over the tightly compacted pile of laundry passing through each layer until finally draining through a small hole buco at the bottom of the tub. This was the derivation of the Italian term bucato“.  Also, the dirty water that oozed out was thick and brown in color with a pungent odor and came to be known assugo di lenzuola or linen sauce.

Delicates were washed separately in a two-step process. First, they were dipped in a mixture of water, flour and lemon juice to remove the odor.  They were then boiled in water with soap shavings and stirred with a big wooden stick.  Once the laundry had been washed, it was painstakingly transported to the public wash basin or the river.  This was where it was thoroughly rinsed before it could be rung out and hung to dry.

The Time Honored Process of  Soap Making in Italy

Soap Making in Italy

Soap making in Italy today by two sisters, just as they did 80 years ago.

Soap making in Italy has always been a tradition amongst contadini.  It was passed down from generation to generation.  Soap production was an annual ritual, which brought the village women together.  It usually took place on the day after the pig slaughter; as pig fat was the main ingredient.  In old Italian films and photographs, you can see groups women gathered by the river or at the communal wash basin scrubbing their clothes on a large yellowish block of soap.  This was quite a demanding task.  Many of the women created social circles allowing them to lighten the load by enjoying each other’s company and catching up on the village gossip.

The process started with an outdoor fire that was made using oak and olive tree wood.  It was then topped off with an enormous caldron called a “callà.”  The cauldron was then filled with a blend of large quantities of lard, used olive oil and sodium carbonate.  These ingredients were boiled for hours until they rendered the proper consistency to form the soap.  The soap was then molded into blocks and redistributed throughout the village in proportion to the amount of fat contributed to the production.

This is just one of many traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation.  What Italian traditions do you hold most dear that have been passed on to you by your grandparents and great grandparents?

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LauraLee

I am a proud third generation Italian American dedicated to promoting the richness of Italian cultural heritage.

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