"What’s the difference between hard and soft water?" I asked my mom. She used either one or both. Hard water was for drinking, and soft water was for dishes, faces or shampoo. My adult cousins drove out from Columbia to get soft water to wash their beautiful long hair.
The first "well" (big water container) I recall was at our dairy’s milk house; it was a huge hole lined with bricks, but not really a deep one. It was called a cistern, not a well, because it contained soft water, rain water. Well water came from deep down in the earth, and our well water contained lime.
Early owners of the farm, which Chub and I bought after World War II, had spots where we think early wells might have been dug: in the pasture, in the corn field, in unusual places. We think they were locations "water witches" had chosen with forked peach boughs. Peach boughs, held just right, were thought to send the message, "Dig here, there must be water in the ground here." Early owners might have built cabin homes near where a "dowser" suggested - but the location behind our house was near a hilltop where there was no apparent need for a water supply and nothing left but a rocky bump in the cow pasture.
Dad had an expensive, deep well drilled near his milk house. It was not far from the big cistern. The water from the drilled well came up from more than 300 feet below ground level. That pumped water was hard water. Hard water curdled when homemade soap or early soaps for heavy laundry were used with water from this very deep well. The difference was in the soap.
Homemade lye soap was "cooked" outdoors in a big black lard kettle, and one batch of good soap lasted almost a year - for use in the milk house, kitchen, laundry, wash-up room - soap was soap. That deep-well water had hard water and caused some soaps to curdle and not make good suds. However, soaps changed.
Quite suddenly the introduction of a new kind of soap changed cleaning in kitchens, laundries, milk wash rooms and glass milk bottles. Hard water did not curdle or leave a scum when the new soap was used.
The word was passed over party lines and around bridge tables, and every occasion when women got together they asked, "Have you discovered the new soap?" It was an instant success. Some women don’t even recall the change!
Ask an older friend what it was like when homemade lye soap was used to wash work clothes - overalls, jeans, heavy coveralls. The discovery of soaps and soap products, which are universal now, ranks with putting a man on the moon - as far as we housewives were concerned when we were curious young housekeepers.