What’s with all the numbers?

I’ll be honest about this: I got into soapmaking for myself initially, to have options that didn’t cause an allergic reaction.  Selling my soap was almost an accident.  I was having so much fun experimenting with new recipes, new components, and new materials, that the bars were piling up faster than I would ever be able to use them.  I began by giving them away to all my friends, in what they all now refer to as “the year of soap at every birthday and holiday” (they say that, of course, and then all of them ask what I’m working on currently and when they might be able to try a sample… 😉 )

And even though I’ve started up the Etsy site, most of my selling happens in person, where I can talk about the process and the values I rely on to guide how I source my materials and plan what to try next.  I love being able to meet people at a fair or a farmer’s market to share what I’ve learned and answer the questions that people have.

You might be surprised at the question I get most often!  (Hint: it’s up there at the top of the post!)

It comes in many forms and varieties, and it isn’t always the first question people ask, but invariably I get it from all manner of folks: customers, market organizers, other vendors, even the guy who came in to service the water heater.

“So, what’s with the numbers on the labels?”

The three basic lines: 1630, 1842 and 1872

The three basic lines: 1630, 1842 and 1872

I’m so glad you asked!

When I first started out testing my own soap recipes, I had to come up with an easy way to differentiate them based on their contents.  I knew from experience that some oils were not an option for me because of allergies, but there were others I definitely wanted to try, and I needed an easy way to track all the mixtures, a way that included a convenient shorthand to refer to them, making it easier to write on a post-it note or in a spreadsheet.  Perhaps because of my love for local history, the idea of using dates just seemed natural to me, so I assigned the dates based on how simple or advanced the recipe was.

Over time, I tested each batch and weeded a fair few out: either because they caused a reaction or because the final result didn’t live up to my hopes and expectations.  Eventually I was left with a few key variations.

1630

My favorite of the 1630 line!

My favorite of the 1630 line!

This is the simplest soap I make.  In its basic form, as my “Simply Clean” soap, it has only three ingredients: pure olive oil, and the distilled water and lye needed for the chemical reaction to produce soap.  If you have allergies, or are concerned about a gentle soap to use on sensitive skin (like that of babies or those with chemical sensitivity), you can’t get more basic than this.  With the benefit of modern chemistry, we are able to make precise calculations and exactly control the proportions of these ingredients, but in essence this is no different from the soap that humans have been making for millennia (we have evidence of this from centuries before human civilizations had developed writing, thanks to residues left inside clay pots and jars!).

Of course, once I had a basic Simply Clean recipe that I was happy with, I immediately used it as a springboard for all kinds of other experiments, but that’s a story for another day…

And why the date 1630?  Well, again, I love history and the history of Somerville in particular, which was settled in …you guessed it… 1630 as a part of Charlestown!

Next up: the nineteenth century!

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