by Casey Kleczek
Emanuel Bronner didn’t just want to make soap. He wanted to unite the world.
For a five year old, the lectures were long and interminable.
“I would be sitting on the couch while he was lecturing away and I’d be staring at the ceiling,” Michael Bronner, the grandson of the eponymous founder of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap remembers, “He would stop and I could tell he was waiting for something from me so I’d be like, ‘All one grandpa!’ and he’d say, ‘Very good,’ and continue.”
Michael, who is now the President of Dr. Bronner’s, is not the man you envision steering a company that recently funded a semi-nude bathing camp at Burning Man. While his long-haired brother David, the company’s Cosmic Engagement Officer, seizes headlines for his robust arrest-ending activism, clean-cut Michael exudes a Midwestern charm and sensibility that is considerably more palatable. He’s funny. Relatable. A shameless family man. He appreciates the countercultural environment he steers while maintaining his misfit status. He proudly showed me the sign that greets visitors in the company’s front office: “The question is not whether our ideas are crazy, but whether they are crazy enough.”
For all the “crazy” the company is known for, that’s not the word Michael would use to describe his grandfather, or the burbling, colorful soap label featuring lengthy declarations on everything from God to morality to how to use the soap itself. As a teenager, Michael had been the chief recorder of his ailing grandfather’s lectures. “I can’t say I always got it. But I could appreciate it. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is really deep.’”
Michael and his family know the life behind the label. For them it isn’t some punchline or the unmanaged frothing of a crackpot visionary, it’s a deeply earnest plea from a tireless prophet. Amidst the liberally hyphenated screed printed on every bottle are haunting explanations: “father-mother-wife murdered,” “Hitler and Stalins to power,” and perhaps most profoundly he calls “the intensity of man’s emotions” the greatest “driving force.”
In this light, the bottle’s breathless monologue reads more like a doomful love letter from the past. A warning to humanity rising up from the sorrows of loss at the hands of a despot. Woven between incoherent maxims are the raw wounds of a man incapable of communicating just how horrific his pain was. He discloses his grief in a desperate, almost childlike way — on a soap label. A soap label that has become the iconic face of a $120 million soap company. A soap label the Bronner family will never change.
He discloses his grief in a desperate, almost childlike way — on a soap label.
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap with its all natural ingredients and peculiar labels has made an unlikely journey in the last 70 years from the hidden recesses of hippie-laden earth shops onto the shelves of Trader Joe’s, Target, and the mainstream home. Today it is the largest personal care company certified under USDA’s National Organic Program and has grown over 1,000 percent in the past 12 years, meaning more people than ever before are reading his soap bottle labels and asking, “What the hell is this?”
The success was only ancillary to Emanuel Bronner’s goal. His ambition was to place his creed-bearing soap into the hands of as many people as possible but only as a vehicle, “Jew or gentile everyone needs soap, but the soap is just the messenger,” he would tell anyone who listened. That he’s become an iconic, pop-culture question mark is an unfortunate distraction from the mission.
This sudsy tabernacle communicated his zealous peacekeeping plan following WWII, a 3,000-word philosophy he called the Moral ABCs. “I learned beginning in 1944,” he says in archival footage, “that what causes all the trouble on this earth the past 2,000 years is the lack of rabbis, and the failure of rabbis to teach every 12 year old boy on God’s spaceship earth the moral ABC’s without which none survive free.”
Politics and Soap
Bronner’s Moral ABCs first developed in the Heilbronner home in the Jewish quarter of Laupheim, Germany where for 70 years Emanuel and his family tirelessly fine-tuned the first-ever liquid castile soap, and held the prevailing belief that “You don’t mix politics and soap.”
This stalwart rejection of incorporating Bronner’s then Zionist ideology into the family business by his strict orthodox father and uncles inspired him to emigrate to America in 1929, where he would be free to create a company of his own ideation, and mix politics and soap as he wanted.
This sudsy tabernacle communicated his zealous peacekeeping plan following WWII, a 3,000-word philosophy he called the Moral ABCs.
In America, he dropped the “Heil” from his last name and became a successful consultant for American cosmetic companies. He fell in love, got married and had three children. But his life came screeching to a halt with a postcard in his father’s largely censored scrawl: “You were right.”
For years he had been trying to convince his parents to follow him to the United States amidst Hitler’s rise to power. He managed to securely help his sisters out of Germany but was unable to convince his parents, who held the prevailing belief of the time that “Hitler would be a thing of the past.”
Within the next year, the Heilbronner soap company was nationalized by the Nazis, and the family was deported and killed in Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt. Not long after, Bronner’s wife passed away.
A New Kind of Talmud
After the death of his parents and wife, a switch flipped. His very aliveness was a burden, a reminder of the fact that his parents died while he was living the American dream. He carried the weight of their deaths like a talisman with a gnawing question, “What are you going to do about it?”
The guilt and sorrow frothed into a frenetic madness. Rather than slip into mourning, he was seized by a singular charge: teach the world the Moral ABCs. All the sources of unwelcome philosophy from his youth were channeled into this hodgepodge Talmud. Mohammed, Rabbi Hillel, Jesus, Buddha, and even Thomas Paine were some of its more notable players. And while the particulars may have been unintelligible, the guiding principle was a call to rise above religious and ethnic differences and unite on “spaceship earth.”
While burying his wife in 1944 he made a promise to God that the minute he had $10,000 to take care of his children, he would become a “servant of God.”
His very aliveness was a burden, a reminder of the fact that his parents died while he was living the American dream.
If he felt guilty about abandoning his kids, he never revealed it. “As the child of a visionary, our father’s own needs often took a distant second place to those of ‘spaceship earth,” Michael explained. Everything was dismissed with Emanuel Bronner’s oft-quoted adage, “What’s more important, [whatever issue they were discussing] or saving spaceship earth?”
“My grandfather always lived with this light and shadow side,” Michael remembered. “He’s this paragon figure for peace and uniting the world but was so poor at doing that for his own family.”
Emanuel started traveling the country holding impromptu lectures in public spaces. Unknowing passersby would stop to gawk at the self-proclaimed doctor with the thick German accent, who sometimes claimed to be Einstein’s nephew to gain credibility. Most of those who showed up did so to get their free soaps and left without hearing his lecture.
Then he was institutionalized. He was speaking without a permit at the University of Chicago when he was arrested for erratic behavior. At this point his sister had him committed at Elgin State Insane Asylum where for over nine months he received electric shock therapy, (which he would later blame for his blindness) insulin treatments, and underwent forced labor. After two unsuccessful escape attempts, he succeeded and moved to Los Angeles, California.
It was here that he began printing his lectures (and his personal phone number) on the soap bottles. He founded Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps as a nonprofit, using profits to further support his mission, which usually meant printing and distributing copies of the Moral ABCs. However, in a postwar era defined by the Dupont slogan “better living through chemistry,” his all-natural formula dating back to 1928 wasn’t exactly a product vendors were convinced by.
“He had no advertising, no sales people, no eyesight, a label that defied every single established conventional label designed, and then, by word of mouth, it became the number-one-selling soap in the natural marketplace,” Michael explained. “A company would order three bottles and he would send them a whole case. ‘Put it on the shelves,’ he’d say upon protest, ‘They will sell.’ And they did.”
In the 1960s the company boomed. The natural ingredients resonated with hippies who found it useful for outdoor bathing, and appreciated its unifying message. Letters from thankful customers poured in. One man wrote, “Until I read your label I was an atheist.” Another 72-year-old man was planning his suicide in his bathroom when he, “started reading your label and it instantly brought purpose to my life, for this, I cannot thank you enough.”
He had no advertising, no sales people, no eyesight, a label that defied every single established conventional label designed, and then, by word of mouth, it became the number-one-selling soap in the natural marketplace
However, a large number of people, Dr. Bronner’s sons included, weren’t entirely sure what it was he was trying to say. As a young college kid, his son Ralph would complain about having to type up edits to his dad’s Moral ABCs, saying, “Nobody’s going to read this crap.” When Emanuel would start going on his lengthy tirades, his son Jim would shut it down with a, “I don’t want to hear about that crap.”
“I think my Dad thought that the Moral ABC was some lofty, unstructured ideal that my grandfather dedicated his life to rather than the support the flesh-and-blood right in front of him, for example, my dad and his siblings.” Michael reflects. “That is why, when my dad wanted to talk to my grandfather about something ‘substantive’ and concrete, he had no time to listen to any pontifications on the Moral ABC.”
The brief popularity of the 1960s waned in the following decades; for the next twenty years, annual sales hung around $1 million. Emanuel’s fanatic focus on his message left him unconcerned and bankrupt in the 1980s when the IRS began looking suspiciously at its non-profit status for a religion that had never caught on.
Emanuel was losing his company, but there was little he could do about it: his Parkinson’s was worsening, he was nearly blind, and stricken by a bout of pneumonia that nearly killed him. Someone needed to step in.
A Family Company
Jim Bronner had emerged from his scarring foster-care experience with herculean resilience. After 14 years in foster care, he entered the United States Navy as a recruit and left with the highest rank an enlisted man could achieve. He started working in his father’s soapmaking company as a bottle washer, rose through the ranks to become a chemist, and eventually became the VP of the company. He married and had three kids. “He always channeled the negative into the positive.” Michael remembers, “Because he was raised by a battery of foster parents, he made sure he was going to be the best, most attentive dad, and forge for us the wonderful home he never had.”
Jim’s relationship with his father Emanuel was never quite a “hunky dory picture tied up with a bow,” to use Michael’s words. “My dad had really gone through tough times. He had hidden from his past, or just really grit his teeth and clenched his jaw and persevered through it. But at one point it kind of came crashing down and there was a period where he was like, ‘Why have you done this to me?’ There were times he and my grandfather weren’t really talking.”
But when his father’s business was going under, Jim suspended any animosity and turned the company around. When Emanuel Bronner passed away in 1997 Jim even assumed presidency of the company he had always “played second to.”
Jim introduced a zero-deductible health care plan for all employees and 15% profit-sharing. He donated a $1.4 million land parcel to build a camp for the Boys and Girls of America in the company’s name. He developed wildly popular products, including Sal Suds, an all-purpose ecological fire-fighting foam in widespread use around the world, and a snow-simulating foam for the movie industry.
He distilled the very Moral ABCs that were a source of frustration from his past into actionable areas of influence the company now calls their Cosmic Principles. “The cosmic principles are the label distilled into actionable areas of influence: ourselves, our customers, our employees, our suppliers, our earth, our community, minus all the religiosity and eccentricity,” Michael explained. “My dad actualized what my grandfather visualized.”
But he didn’t swipe the label of its Moral ABCs. On the deepest level, he too knew what it meant to lose one’s parents tragically. “It was a monument to his father and his father’s life’s work, and he wanted to respect both his dad and his dad’s commitment,” Michael said. “He very much identified with the underlying real-world tenets of the philosophy.” The warring world had left a generational tremor of pain on Jim’s life as well. The trauma of lost parents begot lost parents as his father’s grief orphaned him. Jim couldn’t bring himself to scrub it from the bottle. It was a message the world needed to hear.
So, there in our routine naked scrubbing moments dwells the Bronner opus. A mournful sonnet, a piercing cry of pain and love sitting on our bathtubs like an omen begging us to change:
Til All-One, All-One we are! For this is my goal! No matter how hopeless, no matter how far! To fight for the right without question or pause, to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause! For I know that if I follow this glorious quest, my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest! And I know that the world will be better for this, that one man, tortured, blinded, covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach that unreachable star ’til united all-one we are!