Good clean fun / Making soap and cracking jokes is all in a day's work at Lancaster County Soapworks
By Catherine MolitorisLancaster New Era
Published: Mar 09, 2007 10:13 AM EST
LANCASTER - Maryanne Schwartz wants washing up to be an uplifting experience.
Schwartz operates Lancaster County Soapworks Etc. from her Manheim home, where she makes a variety of homemade soaps and aromatherapy products.
"Our soap is much more moisturizing than what we call 'corporate' soap," says Schwartz, who gets help running the business from her sister, Tina Sams. "There is an overabundance of oil in our soap. It's super-fatted and full of glycerin."
Schwartz, 59, may be cleaning up now, but she didn't start out determined to make soap.
She and Sams operated an herb business at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire — where they became affectionately known as the "Twisted Sisters" — and ran the Herb Basket in Landisville from 1994 to 2000.
Although they were happy with herbs — Sams, 51, continues to publish The Essential Herbal magazine — they were always looking for something else.
Raised by a single mother with three other siblings, the sisters knew firsthand what it was like to run a business.
"Our mother was a real entrepreneur," Sams says, noting that their mom operated an in-home answering service and baby-sitting business. "We were raised around business."
One day, after reading an article on making soap, Schwartz decided to try it. She invited her sister over, and they began what they thought would be a simple process.
"We thought, 'Why should we buy soap when we can make it ourselves?' " Schwartz says. "It'll be easy."
They didn't even let a lack of instructions deter them.
"Today, if you want to make soap, it's all over the Internet how to do it, but back then, there weren't a lot of resources for us," Schwartz says. "Literally, the instructions we found said, 'Put this with this, stir it up and sell it.' "
While Sams' daughter was at preschool, the sisters started making soap.
It didn't turn out well.
"We stirred, and we stirred and we were still stirring when nursery school was over," Schwartz says.
"We should have known," Sams laughs. "Nothing's ever easy for us.
"Still, the women were determined.
"For some reason, we stuck with it," Schwartz says. "We kept trying, and we still aren't sure what happened, but something clicked, and at some point, suddenly, soap happened."
Their first successful batch was lye-heavy and brittle, but it was soap nonetheless.
"We finished a batch, put it out to cure for two weeks and came to see it," Schwartz says. "When I walked in (the workroom), it smelled like soap ... I went to wash off (residue), and it started to make suds. I yelled out, 'Tina! Get in here! It's sudsy!' "
That moment — what Sams calls "achieving soapdom" — was all the inspiration the sisters needed to perfect their product.
Before long, Schwartz was adding flavoring oils, food coloring and any experimental ingredients she and Sams could come up with to make their soap as good as it could be.
"We tried peppermint, paprika, cocoa — you name it," Schwartz says.
Joking about their grocery shopping in the early days, she says checking out with a basket full of anything from cans of lye to distilled water, Crisco, aloe gel, carrot juice and baby oatmeal was always an interesting experience.
"We would usually assure the checkout people that we were making soap, not planning to dissolve any bodies," Schwartz says.
After much trial and error, the sisters were convinced they had a desirable product, which they took to the Landis Valley Herb Faire.
"We said, 'If we sell two bars, we'll consider it a success,' " Schwartz remembers.
They sold 22, and Lancaster County Soapworks was born in 2000.
Customers liked the soap's moisturizing nature and unique scents.
"With commercial soap, the maker extracts the glycerin for other uses," Schwartz says. "Our soap is very moisturizing."
Their No. 1 seller is lavender soap, but they offer many other options, including apple, mint, green tea, blackberry sage, apricot freesia and a blend they call "Wise Woman."
"We have patchouli and sandalwood — we have all the hippie products," Schwartz says.
Their "Happy Wanderer" soap, made with jewelweed, is particularly good for combating poison ivy or insect bites. "Wise Guy" is made with beer instead of water.
Schwartz's products are available in local stores, including the Amish Farm and House in Lancaster and The Old Candle Barn in Intercourse, and she and Sams are building a budding wholesale business, with clients as far away as Florida and Wisconsin.
Schwartz says her most frequently asked question is, "How long does the soap last?"
A lot depends on the user, she says."Are you a hairy man? It won't last as long," she laughs. "You can prolong the soap by letting it dry out between uses and not letting it sit in water."
Along with soap, Lancaster County Soapworks offers "sniffing jars" — blends of herbs that battle anything from sinus stuffiness to PMS.
Sams has developed a line of hydrosols, an essential oil-type aromatherapy product, and the sisters also sell shower sprays and bath scrubs.
Schwartz and Sams are not sure what the future holds, but they plan to continue working for themselves as long as possible.
"We get to play every day," Sams says. "There's a little ballet we do when we make soap. We can anticipate each other's moves. It's great."
Adds Schwartz, "We don't know what our future plans are, but whatever we do, it'll be fun."
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
To learn more about Lancaster County Soapworks Etc., 2839 Hossler Road, Manheim, call 653-5666, or visit www.lancastersoaps.com