Sweet smells of homemade soap
Diane Longacre has always had a fascination with the past. When she was a girl, she dressed her Barbies as pioneers. For years she baked her own bread and sewed her own clothes. She even met her husband while camped out dressed in period costume at a Civil War re-enactment. That fascination is now a full-time job.
“I like history and I like stuff that’s old. I like hands-on creative stuff,” said Longacre, who makes old-fashioned soap from scratch with natural ingredients for her business, Frontier Angel.
“Look out. My goal is to be the soap lady for this county. More specifically this town.”
The name Frontier Angel comes from the Tombstone, Ariz., philanthropist Nellie Cashman. Longacre was inspired by Cashman’s spirit of giving back to the community after reading her biography.
This summer, Longacre quit her job as a Web designer for a large computer company and moved with her family into a 100-year-old house in Grass Valley so she could devote all of her energy to her established soap business.
“This is going to be my full-time job. I have the time, energy and the desire,” said Longacre.
After years of coaxing by her in-laws, the Longacres were finally convinced to make the move.
“Coming from the Bay Area, this is Gold Rush heaven to me. I can see it as it used to be,” said Longacre.
Longacre first became turned onto the soap making process about four years ago when a friend gave her a bar of homemade soap. She immediately began researching the how-tos of soap making through books and Internet sites. She attributes her success to online soap forums, which she continues to visit daily. “That has been invaluable to me.”
Over the years she has learned through trial and error before coming to the secret formula she now uses for all soaps.
All her soap making is done in a small, custom-fit shed in her backyard. When they first purchased the house, the shed was a dark, dingy woodshop filled with black widows. Her husband gutted it, put in new floors and sheetrock and hung a recycled vintage door.
Walking into the shop, visitors are struck by a wave of enticing aromas. Blocks of uncut curing soaps in a variety of earthy hues line the shelves. A 50-pound box of lye and oils in bulk sit on the floor beneath her workspace.
She begins first by slowly and gently melting hard oils like coconut and palm and cocoa butter. Then she mixes the most important ingredient, lye (sodium hydroxide) and water. “You can’t make soap without lye,” said Longacre. In the final bar, the lye is gone. “It becomes something completely different,” said Longacre.
Because of lye’s caustic effects, Longacre always wears gloves, goggles and a mask to protect from burns. She also runs a fan for ventilation. After the lye and melted oils cool, she pours in the liquid oils such as olive and rice bran oil. She uses seven oils in her secret formula and unlike pioneer women, she doesn’t use any animal products (except honey) to make her soap. Using a stick blender, she mixes the ingredients for five minutes.
Next comes the fun part – adding the scents, color and nutrients. She then pours the product into the “Rolls Royce” of soap molds.
“I really wanted it to look handcrafted, but handcrafted well.”
“I’m trying to buy local stuff as much as possible,” said Longacre, who mentioned she needs fresh goat milk for her goat milk and hemp bar scented with patchouli “for the flower child in all of us.”
Local honey is used to make the sweet Honey Bee soap scented with ylang ylang. There are flavors for practically everyone: green tea and rice, lemon and coconut cream, garden mint, amber waves, English rose and even Java Bar. She is working on soap for men using beer!
In addition to essential oil, there is soap scented with fragrance oil. Her most popular – oatmeal, milk and honey – is made this way. Others include Geisha Grapefruit, Vanilla Sugar and Blackberry Vanilla. “You can’t get certain scents of nature, naturally,” said Longacre.
Each bar swirls with color. She is currently working on a line of organic soaps, as well.
“I’m daily wracking my brain, coming up with ideas,” said Longacre, who loves to browse through natural food stores looking for ingredients for her next great bar of soap.
“I’m on the cutting edge. That’s what keeps it interesting for me,” said Longacre.
Everything goes through rigorous testing on self, family and friends.
“I’m really picky about what I sell,” said Longacre.
She’s almost religious about using quality soap. Most commercial soaps are made from beef tallow, and the chemical composition is closer to detergent than soap.
“People need to be educated. You’re skin is porous. You have to read labels on everything, from the foods you eat to the things you put on your body. I list everything. You can understand my labels.”
Longacre has been working around the clock, producing as much as 30 pounds a day, to stock up for Cornish Christmas, where she plans to make her debut. She will also carry lip balms with natural scents such as rose, tangerine, lavender, ginger and mint along with cream-based sugar scrubs that moisturize and rinse clean.
“So you’re not an oil slick,” said Longacre.
After the holidays she plans to start pushing wholesale to make up for the down time between January and March.
Labels are the most intensive part of the process, but she says people love the look of them. She uses prints of old woodcuts from the Victorian era.
“I’d say the 1880s is still my favorite era. I think that’s why I’ve come to feel at home here,” said Longacre.
To view a full line of Frontier Angel soap, visit http://www.frontierangel.com or call for more information 274-3711.
Laura Brown lives in Nevada County and covers the outdoors for The Union. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
The discovery of soap
The story told in 1,000 B.C. Rome about the discovery of soap on Sapo Hill has been repeated so often that mythical elements have take on factual proportions.
The story tells of women rinsing clothes in the river at the base of a hill, below a higher elevation where animal sacrifice had taken place. They noticed the clothes coming clean as they came in contact with the soapy clay oozing down the hill into the water. They later discovered that this cleansing substance was formed when the rendered animal fat soaked down through the wood ashes and into the clay soil.
Source: “The Natural Soap Book, Making Herbal and Vegetable-Based Soaps” by Susan Miller Cavitch.
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