Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: He was a giant
Oh, what a long —- and sudsy —- trip it has been for Dr. Emmanuel H. Bronner and the soap he created, then popularized along with a cleansing dose of proselytizing.
Bronner may be gone now, but nowhere near forgotten given the hundreds upon hundreds of Web pages devoted to his memory.
These pages are devoted to the memory of a man and his soap.
Not to mention Bronner’s magical soap box—-the one that spans what he called “Spaceship Earth” with “The Moral ABC, introduced by Kipling’s ‘If’ & Soapmaker Bronner.”
Bronner was a giant among all-natural soapmakers when he died at age 89 in 1997 after decades of building the leading all-natural soapmaker in the nation as well as creating a personal mystique that continues to inform and astound.
Once secreted away in an obscure industrial section of Escondido, now based at Vista, the all-natural soap company that Bronner made after a career as a chemist for more traditional soapmakers now has passed to a second and third generation of family members.
“We’re the top-selling soap in the natural marketplace,” said David Bronner, 27, who now heads the family soap company, working closely with Trudy Bronner, his mother; Ralph Bronner, an uncle in Menominee Falls, Wis.; and Michael Bronner, a brother.
“Basically, our soap can be used all-purpose,” Bronner said. “It’s part of back-to-the-land simplicity. The formulation hasn’t changed in 60 years. It’s a product, but it’s also my granddad’s philosophy on the label. This was a radical departure from corporate commercialism. Granddad came from an Orthodox (Jewish) soap-making family and kind of rebelled.
“The philosophy was very eclectic and idiosyncratic,” Bronner said. “Get down with each other and respect the earth; very tripped-out. When the (19)60s came around, the soap became the soap of the movement. People realized he was a real human being, not a corporation. We’re continuing the tradition.”
Darreld Kitaen, owner of Good Morning Treasures, a long-time Cardiff alternative emporium, said he first started using Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap in 1961, “way back then.”
“I sell it here in the shop,” Kitaen said. “It’s the only soap I carry. It’s the most special soap in the world. It’s pure. You can use it for anything and everything —- camping out, washing yourself. It tingles whenever it touches your body and everybody wants to tingle. I mix the lavender and almond together in one of our bathroom dispensers and use it every morning. It mellows me out.”
At Jimbo’s in Escondido, Rachel Crystalbird, a vitamin specialist, said she got down with Dr. Bronner’s in the 1970s.
“We stock it regularly here,” Crystalbird said. “People who use it love it. They use it for everything: massage oils, baths, shampoo and even one man who says he uses it for shaving cream. I like to use it for massage and foot soaks.”
Bottling and shipping
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps is manufactured by contract in Los Angeles County but bottled, shipped and managed out of Escondido. The company had $8 million in revenue last year which was the residual of more than 3 million bottles and bars of soap sold. Revenue has been growing 5 percent to 10 percent annually. Escondido’s large processing facility features 18 employees.
The soaps that come in liquid peppermint —- the most popular accounting for half of all sales —- almond, aloe vera, lavender, eucalyptus, tea tree, lemon or rose bars are made from a proprietary formula devised by Bronner. They are all-vegetable oil based with an extra foamy kick provided through high coconut content. The soaps use hemp, olive and palm oils instead of tallow.
“It’s a combination of super-high quality product made from all natural ingredients,” David Bronner said. “It’s our formula, our process, all our trade secrets. The formulation hasn’t changed in 50 years except for the big change putting hemp oil in.”
( That’s hemp as in industrial hemp despite what old hippies may say. The modern day Bronners were wearing hemp clothing and are advocates of allowing more industrial hemp to be grown and used for clothing, oils and such.)
“We’re the top-selling soap in the natural marketplace,” Bronner said.
The liquid soaps are so concentrated that they are nearly solid. A couple of drops generally suffice for lather and washing, while diluting one part soap into 40 parts water is recommended for light cleaning
Biodegradable and “nature-friendly,” the concentrated liquid is popular for at-home washing as well as camping and hiking. A 32-ounce bottle costs around $9 to $10.
Maybe eight pages
But this soap, as popular as it is, also is the medium for a message, or, rather, messages, with each bottle sporting what prints out to eight pages, or more, of philosophical ruminations, contemplation and quotations all emblazoned in microscopically small lettering across each soap bottle.
Messages vary soap-to-soap with some, such as the fabled almond pure Castile soap, causing a stir because of the inclusion of somewhat over-the-top Bronner-composed love poetry.
The peppermint soap message ranges from simple use instructions to much more complex philosophical discourse including references to Bronner’s “All-One-God-Faith,” concept, liberal quoting from Thomas Paine’s 1799 “The Army of Principles,” historical analysis, and references to rain forests and Moral ABC.”
“The whole World is our country, our Fatherland, because all mankind are born its Citizens!” says a typical passage somewhere near the top of the scroll of words that circles the soap bottle much as Bronner’s soaps have circled the globe. “We’re all Brothers and Sisters because One, ever-loving Eternal Father is our only God, our only Religion, that Re-unites God’s legion! For we’re All-One or none.”
The current soapmaking Bronner clan debated whether to ditch the messages but decided they were integral to the soapmaking mystique and family tradition.
“We’re not down with all the labels, but it’s a very beautiful vision with its essence of realizing we’re all one,” David Bronner said. “Generally, it’s just great and we continue to work with it. We revere and respect everything he was about.”
And what about the soapmaking scion who was known throughout North County and the clean world for his charity and grace?
Fleeing the Holocaust
Born to an Orthodox Jewish soapmaking family in Heilbron, Germany, in 1908, Bronner became alarmed by the early ravings of the Nazi Party and came to the United States in 1929. Other family members failed to follow that move and perished in the Holocaust.
“He came from an Orthodox soapmaking family and kind of rebelled against Orthodoxy,” David Bronner said.
Bronner found himself in Los Angeles where he married a Catholic hotel maid which shook up his family and prompted “his search to prove to his father and the world that we are all one people,” Ralph Bronner said.
In a 1983 Times Advocate article cited by an obituary published in the North County Times when E.H. Bronner died in March 1997, he quoted German philosopher Johann Goethe to explain his life: “Whoever wants to work greatly on this Earth must apply himself with such a concentration of all his forces that appear to idle spectators as insane.”
Bronner wasn’t a doctor, really. But he played one in the soapmaking world. Everybody called him doctor which was a title he said he earned through years as a soap-making master which was the German equivalent of a doctorate in chemistry.
But Bronner made his way through the world working as a chemist for the Los Angeles-based soapmaker that today continues to manufacture the soap on a contract basis. Living in a Los Angeles tenement hotel in the 1950s, he started bottling his specially formulated soaps.
From there, Bronner hit the natural food markets during a time before there really were many. And in the turbulent 1960s, many in the counterculture —- despite claims that hippies never washed —- adopted the soap because of its many cleansing and environmentally correct properties.
An urban renewal project forced Bronner to move the bulk of his operations south to Escondido in 1962. He liked the hidden aura of the town named after the Spanish word for hidden. Despite the onslaught of Parkinson’s disease that blinded him around 1972, Bronner remained active around North County until his ultimate demise in March 1997.
James Bronner of Escondido and Ralph Bronner —- a teacher who settled in the Milwaukee area —- operated the company after E.H. Bronner died.
But James Bronner —- David and Michael’s father —- died a bit more than a year later in June 1998 at the age of 59. James Bronner also had a history as a working chemist who invented firefighting foam. He didn’t hold the patent but was able to make money marketing the foam as fake snow. The Bronner foam continues to be used in moviemaking and for celebrations requiring fake snow.
And Ralph Bronner keeps active in the company, carrying on one big Bronner Magic soaps tradition. Witness that through the Bronner’s Escondido parking lot where a white van with Dr. Bronner’s logo and some of his messages glistened in the rain this week.
“That’s the van (Ralph Bronner) uses when he comes to the West Coast,” David Bronner said. “He has a van in Milwaukee to go all over the Eastern Seaboard. But he takes this van up the coast. He goes everywhere, taking a different soap on each trip path, giving soap away to people. He is never not working. He is always talking about the soap and the family and philosophy.”
“He was here in late November and December,” added Michael Bronner “He likes to bring his guitar and play.”