The Case for Artisanal Soaps

Our pandemic-era focus on handwashing created a boom for artisanal soapmakers.

Soap

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Hello. Might I interest you in a tray of cucumber melon, some lovely chocolate pastries and, for a kick, maybe a shot of Irish stout? What’s that — you’d prefer honey whiskey or charcoal-infused beer? No problem. However, a caution. If you imagine I’m offering up a light, albeit unconventional, repast to liven your midday break, sorry to disappoint. What I’ve got here are soaps. That’s right, bar soaps, the kind you use in your daily shower.

I apologize for the tease. It was simply my way of introducing you to a tiny sample of the real-deal fragrances in the exploding universe of artisanal soaps. To take this a step further, I should mention as well that some of the chunky slices emerging from indie soapmakers’ studios these days could easily be mistaken for sweet confections, crowned as they are with what appear to be edible flowers, butter creams, berries, and seeds. Do you lick these things, eat them, or refrigerate them for tonight’s dessert? But trust me, they are soaps.

Made in small batches from botanicals rather than the chemicals that characterize most big-brand soaps, handmade bars are now produced and sold pretty much everywhere in America. Best guess among those in the know is that there are thousands of domestic soapmakers. We are awash in their products. It was the pandemic that supercharged what was once little more than a pastime of hobbyists. Then, suddenly, all of us were manic about personal hygiene for safety’s sake. In the popular mythology of the day, soap became the difference between life and death.

Recently, I talked with P.J. Jonas, founder of Goat Milk Stuff, an Indiana-­based soapmaking company. She explained that the coronavirus put a spotlight on the inherent advantages of handcrafted soaps (some of which, like hers, are made using goat milk). “People were fighting ­COVID by washing their hands so ­often that they were red and raw,” Jonas told me. “They wanted healthier soaps.” And that’s where the artisanals filled a critical need.

Do you lick these things, eat them, or refrigerate them for tonight’s dessert?

Today’s range in price from five bucks a bar to more than $20. Most come from small, often family-owned operations. But one, Texas-based Buff City Soap, has a different business model and is currently rolling out a national retail network of what it calls soap “makeries.” Its ambition is to be the Starbucks of suds.

To get into this biz, honestly, all you need to do is follow the Modern Soapmaking website, study a manual, or attend a seminar. It’s not that complicated. Cold-process soaps, which were first developed in Babylon, have been around some five thousand years — although it’s difficult to fathom hardworking Babylonians lathering up at day’s end with a hefty bar emitting notes of sandalwood and citrus.

As it happens, I am a soap snob. I say this proudly; I don’t retreat from the label. (Irish Spring is to me as kryptonite is to Superman.) Last year I began keeping a journal in which I record everything of importance about the bars I purchase: shape, graspability, lather quality, intensity of fragrance, color marbling, and so on. (My go-to among the more manly-man options are coffee-scented bars that use spiky grounds as exfoliants. Delightful!) Weird? Perhaps. But as these beautiful bricks remain one of the least expensive indulgences that most of us can experience every day of our lives, how terrible is it, really, if we obsess over them? They do far more than cleanse and tingle our skin. Like great music, they can bring us joy as well.

In the March/April issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about how pop culture came to the rescue during the COVID lockdown.

This article is featured in the September/October 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. I subscribe and wish there were more cartoons in my magazine. I want it to be a weekly again. These computer preliminaries come out every week after all. Please notify the boss I’m asking him to make Post a weekly again just as soon as possible.

  2. Pandemic inspired or not, these are the kind of soaps (and shampoos) we should be using anyway with all the chemicals built-in to modern life. Here’s a natural, aromatic solution to that; externally at least.

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