Since 1999, the only manufacturer of handmade soap in Pittsburgh has produced thousands of natural, homemade soap bars in the traditional small-batch, three-day process in a quaint shop in Lawrenceville.
The shop, near the corner of 46th and Butler Street, Jay Design is easy to spot as one can’t miss their mannequin in a bathtub full of bubbles, holding a bar of soap, giving the picture of bath time luxury.
“Our soaps contain all of the natural goodness from production left in the bar,” said Jim Savarino, soap maker at the shop for 14 years. “most manufacturers extract glycerine to use in their higher-end products.” Glycerine, a byproduct of soap making, provides ultra moisturizing benefits to the skin.
Jay Bernard was the mastermind behind the shop’s soap collection. Bernard began making soap in 1989 With the help of Savarino and William Stanhope, a wholesale business making soap developed in Bernard’s apartment. The group made a good profit with the business but really enjoyed the production process most of all.
The men started with a recipe given to them by Mary Wilson, who taught a soap making class in the historical Old Economy Village’s community facility in Ambridge, Pa. In Bernard’s apartment, the team produced batches of their rich soap bars. Once his landlord heard of production of the soap bars, Bernard and his team were given an ultimatum.
“The apartment wasn’t the best place to be producing soap to begin with,” said Savarino during an interview at the shop.
“But when the landlord found out, we realized we had to move.” The demand for their soap was increasing rapidly, which Savarino said, was another reason behind the move. They started making over a hundred bars a week and quickly outgrew the space.
In September of 1999, Bernard, Savarino and Stanhope opened Jay Design Soaps and Gifts, where they hand-make the soap in the shop’s basement. They remained a wholesaler until the demand drastically decreased, the company became incorporated and started consignment contracts with local artists. Now the shop features much more than just soap.
Initially, they sold seven recipes: Almond Oatmeal, Roses and Cream, Lavender Rosemary, Mabel Gray (lemon), Magnolia, Dellarobia and Bayberry to a soap distribution company in Ohio who had connections to Avon.
Most of these recipes are still used today, but others have been slightly altered. The bayberry bar is now known as the Old Liberty bar and comes in a vintage American motif. Magnolia transformed into the Flow Blue Magnolia, a fragrance the shop describes as “decidedly as delicate as the antique china for which it was named.” Newer soaps including Cherry Oatmeal, Lavender Pear, Rose Sauvage, Note Marine and Tuti-Fruiti have joined the list of Jay Design scents. Two additional recipes have been developed; the Baby Cakes and Creme Fresh which feature a lower pH and milk in the recipe and the latest, an olive oil soap.
A special blend has also been developed for dogs called Libby’s Shampoo Bar, which is molded into the shape of a bone.
For the holiday season, the shop has created festive holiday scents including Frosted Cranberry, Christmas Cookie, Blue Twilight, Gingerbread Man, Peppermint, Holiday Spice, Magnolia Noel, Christmas Greetings, Christmas Tree and Holiday Bayberry.
These bars come in holiday themed packaging that matches the scent.
Almost every soap bar is dedicated to a friend or family member of the Jay Design crew. On the packaging of these soaps lists the names of those it has been dedicated to.
The shop’s “man soap” specifically labeled to “fight dirt” is a tribute to Fritzie Zivic, the Lawreceville-natve fighter of the 1930s and 40s who was welterweight champion of the world. Bernard developed the Junior’s Sassafras bar in honor of his father, James “Junior” Bernard. He also developed a “Mom” packaging in honor of his mother Mary Ann, Stanhope’s mother Margaret and his “Pittsburgh mom” Louise.
After the death of Bernard in 2006, Stanhope became president of the company with Savarino as his vice president. The shop is currently run with the help of Stanhope’s mother Margaret, who carefully packages the soaps in handmade, wire dishes.
“When my husband was still alive, we would travel from our farm in Ohio when the shop was still in Oakland,” Margaret Stanhope said during an interview at the shop. “After he passed, I moved down here and became their soap packager, but my sewing and crocheting is also here.”
Savarino and Stanhope pour an average of 200 bars of soap a week. Each 6 oz bar of packaged soap is sold for $10.50 with the exception of the Olive Oil bars which sell for $11. Olive Oil is also available in a 4 oz size for $9.00. Tall baker racks hold trays of unwrapped 6 oz soap which sells for $6.00 each or six for $30.
“We set the unwrapped bars on these baking racks and trays to show these soaps truly are a freshly made product.” Savarino said.
Lining the red walls are tall, dark wood cabinets, tables and stands featuring the work of Western Pa art. Handmade novel birdhouses on the right side of the shop are made per request of customer featuring any book they request for $70. under the birdhouses are an assortment of Archipelago soy and paraffin wax candles, $21.75 for small and $31.75 for large, and votives $3.75 each or 3 for $10.
The candles feature unique fragrances with blends of amber, sugar cane, vanilla, cuban tobacco, smoked cedar wood and much more. Local artist Lang Penny’s handmade cards and magnets are placed around the shop, which sell for $3.00 each or 4 for $10. Margaret Stanhope hand sews cat nip toys in various sizes for $3.00 to $5.00. Various ceramic work from kitchen goods to small sculptures are also for sale at various prices.
“We want to provide handmade, top quality products to our customers,” said Savarino describing the shop’s main goal.
*Note: this story was originally published here.