Mother Earth Living

Scented Essentials

By Sandy Maine
October/November 1995
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Wash away the dust of the day with one of these delicately scented, handcrafted soaps.

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Click here to learn how to make soap

Soap Recipes:

Calendula Unscented Baby Soap
Comfrey and Aloe Vera Soap
Garden Mint Soap
Lavender Soap
Lemon Verbena Soap
Chamomile and Lavender Baby Soap
Rosemary Morning Soap
Gentleman Farmer Soap
Mr. Spicy Shaving Soap 

My love affair with herbal soapmaking began in my farm­house kitchen fifteen years ago. Since that day, it has grown into a thriving business for me. Now thousands of other people are discovering the pleasure of making fragrant homemade soaps and are at their soap pots this very moment stirring, brewing, and sniffing.

Soap has played a role throughout much of human history. Our ancestors extracted it from plants such as yucca, soapwort, and horsetail. The first known written mention of soap is on Sume­rian clay tablets dating to about 2500 b.c. that were found in Mesopotamia in what is now southern Iraq. The excavation of Pompeii, a city buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in a.d. 79, revealed the existence of an entire soap factory.

Ancient Roman legend gives soap its name. From Mount Sapo, where animals were sacrificed, rain washed a mixture of melted animal fats and wood ashes down into the Tiber River below. There the soapy mixture was discovered to be useful for washing clothing, fur, and skin. With the fall of the Roman Empire in a.d. 467, the popularity of soap and bathing went into decline. The resulting lack of cleanliness is ­believed to have contributed heavily to the plagues of the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until several centuries later that bathing would come back into fashion in Europe.

Soapmakers’ guilds began to spring up in Europe during the seventh century. Italy, Spain, and France were early production centers for soap due to the excellent supply of olive oil and barillas, saltworts, plants of the genus Salsola whose ashes were used to make lye. The English began soapcrafting during the twelfth century. For the next several centuries, soap was heavily taxed as a luxury in England and on the Continent, and it was readily available only to the rich. It is said that Napoleon paid two francs for a bar of perfumed Brown Windsor soap. When the English soap tax was repealed in 1853, a boom in the soap trade and a change in the social attitudes toward personal cleanliness went hand in hand. The advent of indoor plumbing made bathing easier.

In Colonial America, women made soap at home just as they made most other home products. Commercial production of soap did not begin until 1608, when several enterprising soapmakers from England arrived in the New World. Technological advances such as the development of a process for extracting inexpensive soda ash from common salt helped the soapmaking industry flourish in America by the mid-1800s.

Home soapmaking experienced a resurgence in popularity beginning in the mid-1980s. The United States currently has at least 6000 home hobbyists and 150 small commercial soapmakers. The interest in using herbs has grown as well in the past decade, and many soapmakers, both at home and in the marketplace, now incorporate herbs and herbal scents into their products.

A selection of sensuous soaps

The recipes below make some of my favorite herbal soaps. Feel free to experiment with scents that please you, essential oils that you have on hand, and plants that grow in your garden. Using the ingredients in the recipes, follow the soapmaking instructions here.

Choose spring water, rainwater, or tap water. Soaps made with herbal oils (either essential oils or fragrance oils) are more fragrant than those made with crushed dried leaves of herbs, although I sometimes add these to the soap mixture for texture. All quantities are given by weight, not volume, because I’ve found that using a scale rather than a measuring cup is far more accurate and results in better soap. All the ingredients are readily available at natural food stores and grocery stores. Choose a solid vegetable shortening such as Crisco. Look for lye (sodium hydroxide) on the aisle with household cleaners.

Each recipe makes 71/2 pounds of soap, or about sixty 2-ounce bars. Some ideas for finishing, decorating, and packaging your handmade soaps begin on page 54. They are wonderful both to use and to give as gifts.

Soap Recipes

Calendula Unscented Baby Soap
Comfrey and Aloe Vera Soap
Garden Mint Soap
Lavender Soap
Lemon Verbena Soap
Chamomile and Lavender Baby Soap
Rosemary Morning Soap
Gentleman Farmer Soap
Mr. Spicy Shaving Soap 

All Shapes and Sizes

Give your imagination free rein in the finishing, decorating, and packaging of your handmade soaps. Experiment with carving, shaping, or molding your soap. Here are some ideas:

• Within a few days of making the soap and pouring it into its shoebox-sized mold, while it is still fresh and soft, roll it in your hands into balls of whatever size you want or carve soft bars into shapes and press designs into the tops.

• Pour the soap mixture into individual soap molds, which you have first greased with shortening. Small volumes of soap can easily separate if allowed to cool too quickly, so set the molds in a well-insulated place as soon as possible.

• Combine soaps of different colors and textures by layering them in the mold, waiting 24 hours before pouring each new layer, or create confetti soap by chopping different-colored soaps into small chunks, then adding these chunks to a newly poured batch.

• Make soap-on-a-rope by forming soap, after it has been taken out of the mold, around a knot at the bottom of a loop of cord.

Sandy Maine, of Parishville, New York, makes soap for both pleasure and profit. She is the founder and owner of SunFeather Herbal Soap Company, which makes many varieties of handcrafted soaps, shampoos, and soapmaking kits. This article is adapted from her Soap Book (Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1995.)


The following companies offer soapmaking ­supplies or kits.

Avena Botanicals, 20 Mill St., Rockland, ME 04841. Catalog $2. Herbal products.

Soap Saloon, 7309 Sage Oak Ct., Citrus Heights, CA 95621. Catalog $2. Soapmaking kits, molds, and supplies.

Sugar Plum Sundries, 5152 Fair Forest Dr., Stone Mountain, GA 30088. Catalog free. Soapmaking kits and supplies.

Summers Past Farms, 15602 Old Hwy. 80, Flinn Springs, CA 92021. Brochure free. Soapmaking supplies, kits, and video.

SunFeather Handcrafted Herbal Soap Company, 1551 Hwy. 72, Potsdam, NY 13676. Catalog $2. Soapmaking supplies and kits.

Valley Hills Press, 1864 Ridgeland Ct., Starkeville, MS 39759. Brochure free. Soap recipes and soapmaking kits.

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