Making Soaps with a Story, and the Story of Making Soaps
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I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Have you ever wondered when washing your hands what materials go into a bar of soap and why it cleans? Today, we answer that question with a visit to a soap maker at her Mount Harmony farm in Middleburg, Virginia. Each kind of soap made by Jean Ann Feneis has a special story. She started her business to support local farmers and their markets.
At the Dupont Circle Farmers' Market in Washington, D.C., you can buy fresh fruits, vegetables, and plants from many local producers. In one area of the market, there is a friendly woman with white blonde hair who sells soaps made from these naturally grown products. Jean Ann Feneis and her husband, Ralph, own Mount Harmony, a nineteenth century farm in the state of Virginia. Ms. Feneis named her soap business Mount Harmony in honor of the place where she makes her creations.
JEAN ANN FENEIS: "I am Jean Ann Feneis. I am a farmer entrepreneur with a cottage industry near Middleburg, Virginia. I wanted to do value-added agriculture. When we bought this little, tiny farm I had several ideas. I wanted it to be a learning center of some kind. But I was looking for a product that we could grow things, add to them, and sell them at the farmers market because I wanted to be a part of saving open land, helping small farmers, helping to control growth. I studied soap and I decided it was a product that I could perfect, that I could make the very best soap in the world."
To really understand the spirit behind Mount Harmony soaps, it helps to visit its planted gardens. Many of the materials in the soaps come from Ms. Feneis' farm.
JEAN ANN FENEIS: "You'll see little plum trees and little peach trees, apple trees. And in that corner are our large dahlias. We have different kinds of thyme, different kinds of mint, rosemary, marjoram."
At Mount Harmony, soap making takes place in a large cooking area in the barn building. Ms. Feneis has workers to help her in the many steps of the process. Mount Harmony soaps are made from olive oil. They also contain palm and coconut oils so that the soap lathers, or creates a foam when rubbed with water.
Mount Harmony soap makers first add water and sodium hydroxide little by little to a large pot of heated oil. When the soap has reached "trace" it means the liquid soap has come to a point where it will not separate back into oil and water. Later, the soap makers add exact measurements of herbs, flowers and essential oils.
The dried herbs and flowers are mostly added for looks and texture. The essential oils give the soap its intense smell. Ms. Feneis has many bottles of different kinds of essential oils that she buys from producers all over the world. Smelling these oils is like breathing in an entire field of lavender flowers or a forest of pine trees.
Next, the liquid soap is poured into rectangular wooden mold forms. The molds are wrapped in plastic for several days so the soap can dry and harden. Later, the soap is taken out of the mold and placed in a storage area to cure or dry for four weeks. This curing process permits water to evaporate from the soap. The soap soon becomes firmer which helps it last longer. The soaps are taken to the markets as soon as they have cured so that they are fresh and have an intense smell.
Understanding soap making also requires a short chemistry and history lesson. Soap is made from a chemical reaction called saponification. During saponification, an alkali base such as sodium hydroxide reacts with a fat to form a small amount of alcohol called glycerol and a metal salt of fatty acids, or soap.
Soap cleans because its molecules attach to nonpolar molecules like oil and polar molecules like water. One end of the soap molecule is attracted to oil and keeps away water, while the other end attaches itself to water and repels oil. This special quality of the soap molecule allows it to suspend oils, which attract dirt. Water can then wash away the soap and the dirt.
No one knows exactly when humans first developed soap. Archeologists have found containers filled with a material similar to soap while studying the ancient cultures of Babylon and Egypt. One story says that soap got its name from Mount Sapo, a place where ancient Romans used to sacrifice animals to their gods.
Rainwater washed melted animal fat and wood ashes down the mountain into a river where women were washing clothes. The women found that the ashes and fat combination made their clothes much cleaner. The story may not be true. But it is likely that the discovery of how to make soap may have been accidental.
Soap businesses began to appear in England, France and Italy during the Middle Ages. By the twelfth century, soap making centers had developed in cities such as Marseilles, France and Savona, Italy. Later, Bristol, England also became an important city for soap production.
Two scientists helped modernize soap production. The French chemist Nicolas Leblanc discovered how to make soda ash from salt in the late eighteenth century. As a result, soda, a main material in soap, became easier to make.
But this process also released large amounts of deadly hydrochloric acid gas. The Belgian chemist Ernest Solvay later developed a better method of soda ash production in the eighteen sixties.
When Jean Ann Feneis first started her Mount Harmony business, she hired a soap expert to help her develop different kinds of products. She soon started to develop her own ideas for new combinations of smells and colors. She has created about two hundred kinds of soaps. We asked Ms. Feneis what influences her to create a new product.
JEAN ANN FENEIS: "People! Or a cause. I try to make soaps for people that we love. For our families, our friends, our staff. Or occasionally for a fundraiser. This is our newest soap to support the elephant sanctuary. The sanctuary takes in elephants that have been in circuses or zoos and need a place to retire. Zaphora has her own soap. She's a child I met in Uganda and it gives us a little bit towards her schooling and her books."
She says some soaps are influenced by current movies, or by places that are important to her. Other soaps are just made for fun.
JEAN ANN FENEIS: "This one is called the 'Yellow Submarine' because it has a little block of yellow in the middle of it. One of our first soaps was called 'Sir Robert the Bruce of Bergamot.' People always think I am talking about the Scottish warrior Robert the Bruce. But, really, Robert Bruce was a three-year-old boy. He was my first soap maker's son. I am blessed with great soap makers who aren't afraid to try new things."
People can buy pieces of Mount Harmony soaps that are cut off of a large rectangular block. Or, they can buy soap that has been beautifully wrapped in brightly colored tissue paper and cloth ribbons. The thin paper wrapping allows the soap to breathe and continue to dry out. The idea for this colorful presentation came from the expertly wrapped objects Ms. Feneis discovered in stores on trips to Paris, France.
Mount Harmony soaps are sold at as many as thirteen different farmers' markets every week. Ms. Feneis employs about twenty-six part time workers to sell at the markets. She says she is very careful about choosing the people who work for her. She says she does not check the number of soaps that her workers take to and bring back from the markets. She says her business operates on a system of trust.
Mount Harmony produces about forty-five thousand bars of soap every year. Extra soaps are donated to children without parents who live in an orphanage home in Juarez, Mexico. The company also gives soaps to a women's shelter and a retirement home for old people.
When Jean Ann Feneis is not working on her soap business, she likes to travel. While visiting South America, she studied different herbs as possible materials in her soaps. In Africa, her visit to the spice farms in Zanzibar also gave her new ideas for her creations.
Jean Ann Feneis also travels internationally as a volunteer. She travels with a group led by Five Talents. This religious-based organization helps people in poor communities get small loans to start businesses. Every year Ms. Feneis goes to Rwanda and Uganda to teach people about her own business experiences and to train people in micro-financing methods.
When she travels to these countries in Africa, she brings hundreds of soaps to give as gifts. The people Ms. Feneis meets on her travels may never actually visit Mount Harmony. But they can experience an important part of the farm by using one of its handmade products.
This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. You can see pictures of Mount Harmony and its soaps on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.