Handcrafted soap a hit on Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs

Published on Monday, 26 August 2013 12:11 - Written by

BETH BRIGHT, The Sentinel-Record


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) — Charlene Simon of The Bathhouse Soapery is making a splash on Bathhouse Row with a unique, handcrafted soap.

Simon, who crafts dozens of soaps in her downtown Hot Springs shop, makes and sells one unique soap in the Bathhouse Row Emporium, located in the historic Lamar Bath House in Hot Springs National Park.

In her nearby shop, Simon makes 60 soaps and more than 353 products, "if you don't count the perfume blending bar - a station where you can mix your own unique scent."

The store moved in May from its original location in the 100 block of Central Avenue to 366 Central Ave. Products that were once made with "a milkshake blender" are now made in buckets, but everything is made true to the original homemade recipe Simon uses.

The products have been a hit with visitors and gained much attention from locals and surrounding businesses. Because of its popularity, the Bathhouse Row Emporium approached Simon about a possible product to represent Bathhouse Row and Hot Springs National Park.

The emporium carries a line of soaps, lotions, bath salts and sugar scrubs made on site from the thermal mineral water with the scent of magnolia.

"This is a signature line made right here at the bath house," said Amy Davis, Eastern National unit manager. "We wanted something that really gives people the feel of Bathhouse Row because of the magnolia trees and thermal waters. It's just something very popular with our visitors."

Davis said the emporium orders 100 bars of soap at a time, but because the products are so popular they go fast. The scent is great for both men and women, she said, because it isn't overly floral.

"The soap and the lotion are really the two most popular products, though we carry travel sizes of everything, and those are very popular, too," she said. "People love the travel sizes because they can take those back on an airplane with no problems."

And when the label says "handmade on site," it is because all products are made in the basement of the Lamar from a special sink the National Park Service put in place just for the products.

"The water is piped through and when it comes out, there's no warm or cold - it's all hot," Simon told The Sentinel-Record.

Simon said because of the temperature, she actually has to set the water to cool down before the soap-making process can start.

"We make soap the old-fashioned way with lye and oils," she said. "When you mix lye into water, it already heats it to almost boiling temperatures. If I were to put that in the water we use for these soaps the way it comes out, it would erupt."

Olive and coconut oils replace the traditional animal fats of "grandma's lye soap," she said, and when the oil mixture and lye mixture have each cooled, they are combined.

"The temperature has to be specific. And by specific, I mean specifically specific," Simon said, with a laugh.

At that point, the fragrance is mixed in.

"The magnolia scent we decided on for the emporium is one we mixed and perfumed just for them," she said. "We don't even sell it at our store, so what you're getting here you can't get anywhere else."

After blending the soap, Simon pours the mixture into 35-pound mold slabs, which each yield 100 bars. Like all of her soaps, the slabs then sit for 12 hours, are removed from the molds in 24 hours and have to cure for four weeks.

In the first 12 hours, the soaps reach "yogurty" and "peanut buttery" consistencies and are whipped to give them a nice density, she said.

"We could let them sit and not whip them, and that would make a nice, clean-looking bar of soap," she said. "But when we stir from time to time it gives us a good idea of if it's setting up correctly."

But the biggest concern she said customers have is when and if the soap will go bad.

"We usually tell people the soaps have a shelf life up to a year, but really that's about how long the fragrance will last," she said.

Simon, who has been making soaps for several years, said she still has the first ever bar of soap she made and from time to time she tests it.

"It still lathers and does everything a soap should," she said. "So even after the scent is gone, the soaps will still work. But it is good to check them because some soaps can go rancid."

But with the right amount of oil and lye, soaps can last much longer than anyone would think.

"I read once that when archeologists were studying Pompeii, they unearthed centuries old soap and it still worked," she said. "That's soap made the right way."

The emporium sells several of the soapery's other products, but the magnolia line is uniquely Bathhouse Row. As for more products, Davis said fans of the product need to keep an eye out for what's to come.

"We're actually meeting soon to discuss possibly expanding our magnolia products," Davis said. "We just can't get enough of these great products."


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.