Article from The Ithaca Times 4/19/18 by Nick Reynolds
- By Nick Reynolds
- Apr 19, 2018 Updated Apr 19, 2018
Photo: Casey Martin
Wendy Ives wanted better soap, plain and simple.
The year was 1998 and Ives, a connoisseur of sorts, thought she had found the perfect bar of soap, one that lathered perfectly, smelled incredible and more importantly, lasted long enough to justify the price. It was a magical moment for her, one that would establish an appreciation for the cleaning substance that would last a lifetime.
Or so she thought: months later, that company went out of business and Ives, now left wanting again, found herself coping with other types of soap, ones that didn’t lather well, didn’t smell good and, even when inexpensive, were not worth their asking price. So she decided to make her own. She was living in a tiny house on her partner (and eventual husband) Andy’s 170-year-old family dairy farm, perfecting her soap each day in the 8’ by 8’ kitchen every day for two years, tweaking the recipe until she finally came up with one she was satisfied with. Then she took that soap to the market.
Wendy seemed suited for business from the start, running various businesses since she was 9 years old. She and her father, an engineer, made Jacob’s Ladders, which she sold at her mother’s stand off a makeshift, cardboard box “booth” at the Westhampton Beach Outdoor Art Show, a long-running and exclusive art show in the Hamptons. When Ives was older, she ran a catering business for a decade, an experience which ended itself to her own approach of bulk soap production. Ives always had a pattern, her process consisting of coming up with an idea, selling it immediately, and seeing where it takes her. But this time, Andy got involved. Working as a sound engineer at the time, Andy recalled when Wendy first took some of the soap she made to a craft show at a college. But then, he had a revelation that would change both of their lives.
“When she came home with a paycheck that looked a little better than the one I take home as a sound guy, I sat down and did the math,” Andy said. “That’s when we decided ‘this could work.’ I wouldn’t have to travel all over the place anymore, that I could sleep in my own bed, eat good food and not have the road life. And that, for us, was the turning point.”
Andy, as it turns out, was the business partner Wendy always needed. Where Wendy was the brains of the operation, Andy was the analytical guy; a former physics student able to transfer ideas into weights and numbers. Working together, they were able to turn Wendy’s original ideas into something repeatable and consistent beyond the artesian approach founded by Wendy – creating a true recipe for success. Ten years later, it’s paid off: the couple, operating out of Booth 22 at the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, have their own company – 17th Century Suds – and numerous product lines, including Ithaca Soap and LiXTiK Lip Balm, which today have customers all over the world. All of which was done without serious promotion.
“We never really concentrated that much on expansion... it’s been pretty organic,” Wendy said. We have a very good outlet at the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, so we really do have the ability to meet people from all over the world. Our mail order is pretty good, and we do have a few retail outlets in places like California. I did actively try to get more around New York State in the last couple of years, but that was more because I saw a window there.”
Doing all the production out of their home in Newfield, the couple ships soap and creams to places like Japan, Russia, and even a steady customer in Germany, who buys their products in bulk. They once even had a small group of mail order customers drive all the way up from Missouri to visit them at their booth. The couple processes close to 2,000 lbs of material each year into their extensive line of soaps and lip balms, very little of which goes to waste.
Describing themselves as a a “value-added, mom & pop, Main Street business,” the couple gets to make a living while simultaneously living their values. When they first began their relationship in the late-’90s, they joked that they “had met 300 years ago” because of their values of simplicity and sustainability. It seemed, at that point, to be only natural to name their soap company after an era where people in the Western Hemisphere started using soap on a more regular basis. (Prior to that in Europe and among non-natives in the Americas, soap was only for the rich, and each household had a soap maker.)
“The 1700s was a time where people realized regular bathing could be good for your health,” said Andy. “And so more common people started making soap and it began to become popular with the masses.”
But the name isn’t just meant to be taken literally: it’s meant to invoke thought, speaking both to the couple’s business ethics and their perspective of the world around us.
“We look at the world in many aspects, in an old fashioned way,” Andy said. “I find myself, throughout my whole life, wondering about what it was like before we had cars and all this new technology, and whether or not we should go back to that. That somewhat informs the way we do business. We keep things as simple as we can. It’s old-fashioned beyond most people’s recollection of old fashioned.”
Want to learn more? Visit Booth 22 at the Ithaca Farmers Market Sat. 9-3 and Sun. 10-3