Soap Makers Revive History and Family Farms

  • Kim Brooks makes a batch of her Annie Goatley Hand-Milled Soap in her kitchen. (Photo by Tamar Charney)

For many of us, soap is just another mass-produced product we buy at the local supermarket. But in recent years, all-natural handmade soap has been showing up in galleries, gift boutiques, craft shows, and farmers’ markets. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney has more:


For many of us soap is just another mass-produced product we buy at the local supermarket.
But in recent years, all-natural handmade soap has been showing up in galleries,
gift boutiques, craft shows, and farmers’ markets. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Tamar Charney has more:

Kim Brooks’ home smells clean – like lemon, rosemary, citronella and well,
soap. The smell’s so pervasive that it wafts onto the school bus with her
12-year-old son, prompting taunts. His response to the kids teasing is he smells
like profit. See, his mom is a soap maker.

“I think I need to make some goats and oats with a dab of honey. So we’ll take oatmeal…
then I also want to add a little fragrance to this…”

(bottles clinking)

She makes 30 different types of bars for her Annie Goatley line of homemade soap.

“My soap is hand-milled, so what that means is I take olive oil, palm oil and coconut oil
and then I melt it down and add the lye and it saponifies, and then I make a base that
comes out in big chunks of hard soap and then I take these big chunks…”

It takes about two months from the time she starts a batch of soap until she
has a finished bar.

Kim Brooks started her business last June. She says she’s one of those
people who’d buy handmade soap any time she saw it. She says it was an
inexpensive way to feel like she was pampering herself. Eventually she
learned how to make it.

“There is a group of people that whenever they go to a craft show they buy soap. It’s
odd to think of it, but there is actually a culture of people that seek it out.”

Enough that Brooks says she can make soap seven days a week and still have trouble keeping up
with demand.

“As long as people get dirty, there’s always a market isn’t there?”

Patty Pike is another soap maker. She lives near Rogers City in northern Michigan. And she runs
an e-mail list for soap makers all across the state. More than 170 people are on the list.

“There are many women who are at home, either by choice or otherwise, and they are looking for
something to do to keep busy or to have a home-based business.”

She says for some, soap making is a creative outlet or a craft. For others,
such as Patty Pike herself, soap is a way to beef up a family farm’s bottom

She raises goats, cattle, and chickens for show and for meat. And
soap was a way to make some money off the extra goat milk.

If you drive around rural communities you’re likely to see hand-lettered signs for soap outside
family farms.

In recent years, there’s been a renewed interest in how things used to be back before soap became
a mass-produced product advertised on TV.

(sound of soap ad)

At The Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, crowds of people who
grew up humming the ads for Dial, Zest, and Irish Spring show up to watch soap making

Jim Johnson is with the Henry Ford. He says in colonial times, soap was just something everyone
made at home.

“As we move towards the whole convenience thing… this starts really at the end of the 19th
century and takes off at that point. By the time you get to the other side of Depression, the other
side of World War II, homemade soap is something only of folklore at that point.”

He says with the back-to-land and natural foods movement in the 1960’s and 70’s there was a
return to handmade, homemade soap. Since then, it has bubbled up from being a counterculture
interest to a more mainstream one.

One that’s been encouraged by the slow food movement, interest in organic products, and even
the popularity of how-to shows on television.

“It may be just sort of a whim or a hobby trying to make a connection to the past, other times they
might attempt it for practical purposes, you know, where they want something that they’ve done
with their own hands and they know what’s in it.”

And for a lot of people that itself is rewarding.

Kim Brooks takes a break from stirring a big pot of soap and she goes out to feed her goats and

(barnyard sounds)

Like many of her customers, she has discovered she gets a certain satisfaction making things
herself or from buying things from someone she knows or at least has met.

“You know, we have heard so many things about ‘well this has been put in our
foods or that has been put in our foods’… and ‘this is a cancer-causing agent’ and you know, ‘this
is safe’ but then later on we find out well it’s not really safe. And I think that just as a culture
we’re really trying to get back to more of the natural products. I think handmade soaps go right
along with that.”

And she thinks people may be realizing they value things more when they’re made by people, not
machines. Handmade soaps might be all the rage at craft shows, gift boutiques, and farmers’
markets, but even soap manufacturers have caught onto the trend. In the aisles of many
supermarkets and drug stores, more and more soaps are showing up that look handmade even
when they’re not.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tamar Charney.

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