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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011

Lathering Up With Mama Bear

Wisconsin company adds luxurious touch to the art of shaving

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I have never met Mama Bear, but many a morning her signature soap adds a touch of luxury to my shave. Mama Bear is Sue Clark, soap mistress extraordinaire, and her Mama Bear shaving soap is one of some 20 different lather soaps and creams I rotate in the shave den—my little corner of paradise. The glycerin-based shave soap comes in a variety of scents in a 4-ounce black-and-white plastic tub with lid, and is available online only at mamabearssoaps.com.

From the scores of quality lather shave soaps produced worldwide, three have a cult following among shavers using a badger or boar brush with a straight or double-edge razor: Mitchell’s Wool Fat from England, Tabac from Germany, and Mama Bear from Florence, Wis., a picturesque little town in the state’s North Woods.

“There is something about putting a good brush to a great soap and building up a rich and scented lather that is very satisfying,” Clark says. “I even have a number of ladies who lather up with Mama Bear to shave their legs.”

What distinguishes the great shave soaps is dense lather to soften the beard, slick texture to improve the razor’s glide and proper skin cushion to provide comfort. For me, Mama Bear has all three.

“I spent four years fine-tuning the soaps,” Clark explains. “I was convinced if I added everything I thought was good, I would have the perfect product—but I ended up with a soap that didn’t lather.”

She eventually found the right formula by using coconut, palm, castor and safflower essential oils along with such natural additives as vegetable-based kosher glycerin. “Mama Bear shaving soaps are natural and not a synthetic chemical-laden version of soap,” she adds.

Even though she has experimented with shaving creams, Clark says she always returns to soaps. “I take what I learn from cream and apply it to soap,” she points out. “I can’t say that creams are better than soaps, only that I am fascinated with soaps.”

The self-proclaimed scent junkie, who has created 150 scent varieties, says she does not follow a particular pattern in creating new scents. Feedback from Mama Bear soap aficionados and seasonal changes have some influence on her. Otherwise, Clark notes, she goes with the flow.

Mama Bear’s fragrances include Spice Island, lavender and mint, patchouli and lavender, and cedar wood and lemon, among others. Aged Spice, a fragrance reminiscent of the original Old Spice, is a best seller. Mama Bear also comes in an unscented form. From the Mama Bears I have tried, I prefer the floral scents and Ye Olde Barbershoppe.

“It’s all you can do when it comes to fragrance,” she says. “Scent is the strongest sense we have, and fragrance is a personal thing. I don’t plan a fragrance. I think it’s always there, waiting to be found.”

There is no telling what fragrances are next for this Chicago girl who, in 2004, launched Mama Bear and at the same time found a home in what she calls one of the most beautiful places on Earth—Florence, Wis.

Clark says she once made a list that put making soaps right up there with making beer and wine, in addition to studying herbs and essential oils.

“I was also hoping to learn to cook,” she adds, “but that’s still up for grabs. I truly never expected to find myself as a professional soap maker, but I sure am glad I did.”

For one who embraces the morning shave ritual every day with a top-notch badger brush, a great shaving soap or cream and a magnificent straight razor, I could not agree more with Mama Bear Sue Clark.

Obie Yadgar was Milwaukee’s most familiar voice in classical music as an on-air host for WFMR.

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