the soap-opera life of Emanuel Bronner

The backpackers, hippies, and thrifty laundry-doers among you might recognize the label on this bottle of soap.

For the uninitiated, this is a bottle of “Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Pure-Castile Soap”, beloved among the crunchy granola crowd for its many uses and natural ingredients. The soap itself is probably as close to a magic elixir as one can get these days; the eighteen suggested uses range from the expected (face and body), to the slightly unusual (teeth cleaning), to the out-of-left-field (spraying for plant parasites).

However the manifold uses of his soap are only part of the appeal of this quirky bottle of cleaning fluid. Apparent in the above photo, the label that appears on each bottle is, to put it lightly, eccentric. Every spare square centimeter of space seems to be occupied by writing, but only a small fraction of it actually pertains to the soap. The rest of the label is full of phrases like the following:

“For we’re ALL-ONE OR NONE! ALL-ONE! LISTEN CHILDREN ETERNAL FATHER ETERNALLY ONE! EXCEPTIONS ETERNALLY? ABSOLUTE NONE!”

and

“A great teacher, must first, a self-supporting hardworker be, like Alesen-Baeck-Carnegie- Cousteau-Hammer-Liebman-Paine-Pike-Sanger-Spinoza-Strauss-Szasz-Wilke-Yadin-Zamenhof, or he’ll turn our greatest teaching into spades, to bury our people! “All people!” added Carpenter Jesus entering manhood! Manhood!”

The nonlinear manifesto that occupies most of the label is dedicated to proselytizing the idiosyncratic philosophy invented by Dr. Bronner: the “All-One-God-Faith” or “Moral ABC”, which incorporates the teachings of (among others) esoteric Rabbis, Jesus, and Karl Marx (the soap’s website even uses a graphic of the kabbalistic tree of life), that Bronner drew upon in his effort to achieve world peace.

As interesting as this soap is, I am actually just using it to introduce what I really want to write about here – Dr. Bronner himself. As anyone who has read one of his labels might imagine, he was a man who led a unique and adventurous life.

He was born Emanuel Heilbronner in 1908 in Heilbronn, Germany (one might gather from his surname that his family had been there for a while). His parents were also soapmakers and it was in Germany that he studied soapmaking, eventually earning a “soapmaking master certificate” in the guild system trade school of the time (which he later claimed to be the equivalent of a doctorate, hence the “Dr. Bronner”).

His family was Jewish and in the late 1920s, fearing the intentions of the up-and-coming Nazi party in Germany, Emanuel pleaded with his parents to emigrate with him to the United States. His parents, however, were not persuaded and so in 1929 Emanuel left on his own to travel to America aboard an ocean liner and was naturalized as a citizen in 1930. In a chilling turn of events, his final contact with his parents would come in the form of a postcard which read “You were right – your loving father.” He would later learn that his parents had been murdered during the Holocaust.

During the 1930s, Emanuel dropped the “Heil” from his surname, ostensibly to protest the word’s association with the leader of Nazi Germany, and devoted himself to the cause of world peace. He had been unconvinced by his father’s traditional religious views and instead felt that “…the world should know all religions had the truth.according to his son, Ralph. Instead of dogma, he felt that humans needed the perspective that we are all passengers on “Spaceship Earth” (that’s a philosophy I can get behind).

Over the course of the next decade, he allegedly sent more than 200 telegrams to the President Franklin Roosevelt, advising him on world peace and how to end the second world war. Through his soap-boxing (pun intended), he became associated with Fred Walcher, an Austrian immigrant to Chicago who founded the “American Industrial Democracy” movement with the aim of bringing about world peace (sounds familiar). Walcher, who was frustrated with the public’s ignorance, gained fame after he crucified himself as a publicity stunt in the Ranch Triangle neighborhood of Chicago (he survived and was fined $100). Bronner was even interviewed in the article about the incident, though he was identified as “Emil” rather than “Emanuel”. Ironically, Walcher was later found to be a sympathizer of Bund, an American Nazi group.

Later on, in 1946, Bronner had been invited to the campus of the University of Chicago by a student organizing group. The exact circumstances are unclear, but this visit ended with Bronner refusing to leave the Dean’s office, getting arrested, and being committed to a mental hospital where he was subjected to electric shock therapy (more on that later). Six months in, he escaped the mental hospital and hitched a ride with a stranger who was headed to Los Angeles. His ride ended up ditching him in Las Vegas after Bronner revealed he had escaped from a mental hospital (unsurprising). Undeterred, Bronner posted up at a roulette table and turned the few dollars he had into enough cash to bankroll the rest of his journey.

Once in southern California, he resumed preaching while also producing soap that he gave away at his lectures or sold in small quantities to support himself. It was also around this time that he stared using the title “Dr. Bronner”, despite his lack of formal title. The soap (which really is quite good, in my experience) was incredibly popular, especially among the hippies in California around that time. Reportedly, once he noticed that people were more interested in his soap than his ideas, he began to put his thoughts onto the labels of the soap bottles, leading to idiosyncratic label that we see today.

Unsurprisingly, a man like Dr. Bronner was more interested in achieving global unity than the vagaries of business. In the 1980s, Bronner had gone completely blind (which he blamed on the electric shock therapy) and his company owed more than a million dollars to the IRS. That would have been the end of the soap company, had it not been for his son reluctantly taking over the business. Today, the company leads the industry in ethical material-sourcing and fair labor practices.

Emanuel Bronner died in 1997 after leading an eccentric and, if not fuller, certainly more interesting life than most (there are many bits I left out). His legacy includes his “Moral ABC” philosophical manifesto (which you can download as a pdf here), his family-run soap company, and the Sea Shepherd-operated vessel MV Emanuel Bronner, which works to protect endangered harbor porpoises in the Baltic sea.

Oh, and by the way, this is what he looked like.

/millibeep

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