New Hampshire Glossary: Potash

potash(“black salts”) a substance that was often the first cash crop,

and export product, for the early settlers of New Hampshire. Potash, also known as potassium hydroxide or lye, was a strong base used throughout history to make soap, gunpowder, glass, and bleach.

The early settlers would first chop their hardwood into logs. Using oxen they would draw the logs together, pile them in big heaps and when they were dry, burn them to ashes. They then took lumber and made a leach in the shape of a “V”; filled the leach with ashes and poured water in on top of the ashes. The lye, which ran from the ashes, was caught in potash kettles and boiled into potash. The water evaporated, which left in the bottom of the kettles, a great cake of dirty-brown matter, called “potash.”

These lumps were broken up, re-leached, evaporated, and dried in brick ovens, producing a whiter, purer grade of potash called “pearlash” (shown in graphic above).

In this concentrated form, the great forests of northern New Hampshire, were, with much labor, turned into money by the hardy settlers, who, in the winter, conveyed the pearlash to local markets in their sleds, and came back laden with the necessaries of life. Almost the only products having a cash value even as late as 1830 or 1840 were potash and grass seed.

It took 200 bushels of ashes from the fallen trees to make 100 pounds of potash. Local storekeepers exchanged imported goods for farm crops and other local products, including potash.


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