Masters of Their Craft: In A Lather
Local soap-maker Emily Manger Davis has a true passion for her work and for the city she calls home.
cheryl gerber photographs
Headquartered out of the Riverbend shotgun where she grew up, Emily Manger Davis combines art and agriculture as she creates handmade soaps out of fresh local ingredients. She learned the trade from her dearly departed grandmother, Ann Mae Baroni, who was raised during the Depression and sold decorative boiled soap to wealthy Uptown residents – back then a bar of soap cost a nickel.
“My fascination with [soap-making] began in Grandma’s kitchen,” Davis says. “The next decade was spent perfecting the recipes she handed down.” Davis still uses her grandmother’s old pot, carrying on a legacy at her family-run business, Sweet Olive Soap Works.
Davis has one apprentice, explaining that soap-making takes years to master. She also employs a few others to help with the daily duties.
Hers is a trade that she has honed to perfection over the years. During her college years – well-known to be a time of “experimentation” for many – Davis formulated new soap recipes, including one that featured a staple in every student’s life: beer. “I started off experimenting with beer soap recipes and had a reasonable amount of success in not drinking the beer set aside for the soap,” she jokes. “My experiments got wilder as I grew determined to see what all you can add to soap, and that’s what I’m still doing.”
Trial, error and patience have led her to some imaginative fusions of ingredients, and she admits, “It’s hard for me to look at anything edible without wondering if it would make good soap.”
Inspired by “heritage, culture and the rich bounty that grows on Louisiana’s soil,” Davis usually begins the process by taking a trip to a farmers market, though oftentimes she obtains ingredients from friends with an abundance of certain homegrown ingredients – “something that smells good or tastes yummy growing on their properties.” Davis and her husband maintain an organic garden in their backyard, which is where many of the ingredients are grown. Each batch of olive oil soap is handcrafted using nutrient-rich blends of vegetable oils, butters and high-quality Louisiana-grown and skin-loving ingredients. “We are proud to work in partnership with environmentally responsible businesses and individuals throughout the state,” she says.
Cold-process soap, she explains, takes four to six weeks from inception to finish. Soaps are cured for at least a month because “quality takes time to reach perfection.” Davis uses no synthetic chemicals, preservatives or artificial dyes that can cause skin irritation. “I sit down with a calculator and do some fancy algebraic equations and come up with a recipe tailored for the special ingredient,” she says. “I pull out all of the necessary safety equipment; put on safety gear; mix it all together; and pour the concoction into slab molds, where it sits, insulated, for at least 24 hours.” Once the soap has hardened, it is cut into bars and then set on racks to cure.
The finished products are available at select retail locations throughout South Louisiana and online at www.sweetolivesoapworks.com, donning clever names as a nod to distinct local culture, lore and quirks. Her bestsellers are Louisiana Sweet Olive and Lafitte 1815; other examples include Desire (magnolia and oak moss with shea butter); Storyville (jasmine bloom and rose hips); All Souls (sage-infused olive oil soap with oak moss, cypress and sandalwood); and Bon Temps Poulet (which is made with eggs).
“My job is to capture this city in soap, and that is only possible because New Orleans is so enchanting,” she says.
Above all, Davis praises her customers, saying they are her favorite aspect of her hobby and career. They are, she says, “the nicest people out there.”