Soap-maker Finds Essence Of Success

Posted: April 06, 1988

Her house smells sweet and spicy at the same time. It's the soap.

In her sun-filled, light pink and white kitchen overlooking rose bushes and a Rose of Sharon tree, Almena Monteiro measures out the essences and oils of her recipes:

West African palm oil the color of sweet potatoes; rich, white vegetable shortening sold in 50-pound chunks, clumps of cocoa butter and shavings of beeswax, the hardest ingredient to melt.

She puts them in a pot, where they simmer down and flow together while she mixes the lye solution. It spontaneously warms up in a glass jar in the sink as Monteiro ponders making her own potash from burnt wood so she can eliminate the lye from her soaps.

"Potash would just seem more - more natural," she said, emphasizing the word natural with a lilt in her voice. "And I like things - things that are natural."

In 1982, Monteiro, who is a naturalist, recycler, macrobiotic eater, winemaker and urban gardener, began making soap as a hobby in the kitchen of the North Philadelphia home where she has lived for 44 years.

Gradually, at the urging of one of her two sons, Mickey, a Philadelphia public school teacher, her hobby became a small-business enterprise for providing soap to her friends.

Initially, Monteiro hand-wrapped each bar in pieces of floral-print cotton cloth. But now they are individually wrapped in thin, delicately printed paper, usually pastel. Each bar is encircled by her label, a wide band of off- white paper that reads Almena's Fine Soap, a new experience in soap. A strawberry is used for the apostrophe.

"Once I learned to make soap," she said, "I kept making it and making it and making it. I wanted my friends and my friends' friends to have the experience of natural soap."

The smooth lather, gentle feel and subtle fragrances of her products have made many more friends for Monteiro, 66, a small woman with clear supple skin, sure movements and an unaffected manner. The enterprise has taken Monteiro, who retired from the check-processing department at Continental Bank last year, to art shows and craft fairs around the area, where she does demonstrations and sells her growing line of soaps, shampoo, salve, cream and potpourri. She also sells Almena's Fine Soaps through a limited number of natural-products stores, such as the Ecology Food Co-op in West Philadelphia, where she is a member.

Monteiro first learned the old-fashioned art of soap-making from a friend who formerly lived in the Richard Allen housing project and made soap because she had sensitive skin.

While remembering how her hobby got started, Monteiro took the warm 3 1/2- gallon pot off the stove and moved it to a work table in the middle of her kitchen. She added a tea from boiled down, woodsy-smelling patchouli leaves, a fragrance made from an East Indian mint plant that she was trying out for the first time.

Some of her soaps - Marigold, Mintco, Lemon Verbena, Lavender and Herbal

Dream - are made with plants from her garden, which also provides flower petals for her potpourri. She has other soaps, Very Berry and Peach Delight, that are made with fruits that are boiled-down, chopped and strained.

As the patchouli tea blends easily into the warm, fragrant mixture, Monteiro stirs in coconut oil, vitamin E, olive oil and oatmeal.

The mixture turns caramel brown and Monteiro reads ingredients - sodium cocoyl isethionate, stearic acid, sodium tallowate, sodium isethionate - from the label of a popular facial soap for comparison, noting that the commercial soap's contents don't "even sound natural." At the same time, she pulls out a long wooden spoon and begins stirring her soap for 40 minutes.

The thickened mixture is then poured into molds - everyday, small plastic containers that once held fruit, salads or rows of crackers - until she has about 24 regular bars and six little ones to give away as samples for feedback on the new fragrance she's trying. She then covers the settling soap with Styrofoam, a wool shawl and a folded cloth furniture throw "to keep them warm," she said.

It will take about two months before the soap in this batch is ready.

To keep a supply in stock, Monteiro makes soap almost everyday. She makes only small batches because it makes the soap "nicer" and "more special," she said, laughingly accusing herself of being "fussy."

Monteiro, who says, "I'm not going to take food off my table to make soap," sells the bars for about $1.50 to $2.50. That covers her cost but does not generate a large profit. She says she has no interest in mass-producing her product: In addition to quality-control concerns, she just doesn't want to be bothered.

"I'm not thinking about being all ambitious and creating any kind of big business," she said. "Being a millionaire, that's not my ultimate of happiness."

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