I want to start this archive process with an introduction to Mary Steele. Mary Steele is my maternal grandmother and the catalyst and inspiration for Steele & Co. Though facing old age (88) and the usual health challenges that accompany it, Mary took the time to answer some questions about healthy-living and the soap-making process. Here is what she had to say.
“I was an early health-food enthusiast and a yoga student, before it was fashionable. I read Adele Davis on the beneﬁts of healthy non-reﬁned food and cooked our meals accordingly. We kept a large, bountiful vegetable garden in the backyard. I practiced Hatha Yoga by sitting on the living room ﬂoor in front of the newly acquired TV following the instructions of Kareen Zebroff, whose own beauty was afﬁrmation that this system worked."
My own Mother, Marne, remembers growing up using her mom’s soap; it was the only soap they ever used. When Mary was asked why she started to make soap, she replied, “Have you seen the price of soap?”
Mary has always had a long-standing distaste for artiﬁcial scents and except for the occasional garage sale score of a box of expensive Yardley’s she didn’t have any other soap in the house besides her own, made with all natural ingredients in her own house. She said it always seemed a shame to throw out all the leftover fats from cooking poultry and meat so she collected it in the freezer and when there was enough, she made a batch of soap in the basement. Her soap wasn’t used for laundry detergent, only for dishes and the bathroom.
Marne: “How long did you leave it down there, mom?”
Mary: "Oh, until it was convenient; about a month. Then I cut it into bars with a knife and I wrapped each piece in cotton.”
Marne: “Why cotton?”
Mary: "Oh because it is a pure fabric and it was absorbent. I wrapped each bar separately.”
Marne: “Then what?”
Mary: "Gosh, I should have done this (interview) while I still remembered! I just wrapped each bar in a piece of cotton and put it all into a cardboard box. It was pretty good soap.”
Clearing out Mary’s basement in 2010, my mother came across Mary’s old soap making equipment: an old, worn-out wooden spoon; a shiny stainless steel stock pot; wooden tongs; and some large mason jars. The nostalgia of growing up with homemade soap inspired my mother to pass them on to me, thinking I might be interested. She was right.
Using my grandmother’s original soap recipe, I first made soap in my Victoria flat in Chinatown. Experimenting with recipes for a year, I came to make some small modifications to Mary’s original and eventually created a new generation of Steele soap using food-grade plant-based oils. With all-natural ingredients and scents inspired from the west coast of British Columbia, Steele & Co preserves a philosophy nurtured for three (going on four) generations.
As for the packaging, I was heading through Youbou, a small town in Cowichan valley, and came across an abandoned auto body shop with a beautiful old sign. I took a photograph of the sign and showed it to my friends Caleb and Hanahlie at Caste Projects. Using that picture as inspiration, Caleb and Hanahlie created and continue to create the packaging for Steele & Co.