Soap guru overcomes shock and shock-induced blindness to “save the world with soap”

Dr. Bronner attempts to save the world with soap
By Molly Snyder Edler

OnMilwaukee.com
Oct. 26, 2006

“If we ever advertised, I would have a billboard reading ‘Our soap makes your crotch tingle,’” jokes Ralph Bronner, vice president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a 60-year-old company based in Escondido, California.

But Ralph, who lives in Menomonee Falls, doesn’t advertise. Instead, he promotes his family’s business in unconventional ways. He and his wife road trip across the country with cases of soap, stopping at health fairs and natural food stores. Also, he interviews frequently with journalists, and articles about his company have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, Fortune.com and Vogue, among many others.

Ralph inherited his anti-advertising philosophy and free spirit from his eccentric father Emmanuel Bronner — AKA “Dr. Bronner” — who started the business in the ’40s.

Although “Dr. Bronner” never attended a university, he earned a “soapmaster’s degree” — basically a completed apprenticeship — and declared himself a doctor of soap. Over the years, he also referred to himself as “The Pope of Soap” and “Rabbi E.H. Bronner.”

Dr. Bronner was from an Orthodox Jewish family, and much of the company’s vision and philosophy were born out of devastation from the Holocaust. Dr. Bronner believed that humans are all from the same divine source and often he printed the words “All-One!” on his bottles of soap.

Dr. Bronner was also a pioneer in the environmentalist movement, and today, the company is still ecologically friendly and socially conscious. The company donated a rain forest territory worth $1.4 million to the Boy’s and Girl’s Club for a camp. They also give over 10 percent of profits annually to a slew of non-profit organizations, use only natural ingredients (including hemp), never test their products on animals and offer fantastic wages and benefits to their employees.

The soap, available in liquid or bar form, comes in a variety of scents, including peppermint (which, for the record, does make things rather tingly “down there”), almond, tree tea oil, lavender and rose. It can be used on skin, hair, teeth, floors, cars, pets and as mosquito repellent, denture cleanser, athlete’s foot medicine and diaper deodorizer.

Over the years, rumors have surfaced claiming that the soap can be used as a douche and as birth control, but Bronner says the company doesn’t recommend these practices.

The Dr. Bronner product line expanded over the past few years. New products include Dr. Bronner’s & Sun Dog’s Magic lotions, lip balms and tattoo balms, and a line called Gertrude & Bronner’s Magic Alpsnack energy bars.

Dr. Bronner started the soap company in the late ’40s, but the business didn’t begin to gel until the late ’60s when Haight Ashbury hippies discovered the soap through word-of-mouth advertising. Hippies embraced the product because it was simple, natural and inexpensive, and because the label quoted poets, spiritual leaders and other visionaries.

The label, crammed with more than 3,000 words of copy and not a single graphic, looks more like a page torn from a book rather than a product label. Dr. Bronner used the label as his personal soapbox (no pun intended) to promote his ideas of environmental protection, peace, global unity and one-love/one-God.

Originally, Ralph was a non-believer in Dr. Bronner’s labels that quote a diverse group of people, including Jesus, Oprah Winfrey and Carl Sagan. He thought the label was aesthetically unpleasing and that no one would read it. He also thought the product needed a catchier name than “Dr. Bronner’s.”

“I thought he should call the soap ‘Mint Glow,’” Ralph says.

Prior to the computer age, Dr. Bronner coerced Ralph to type the labels on typewriters, sometimes just to change a single word. Although the labels were a source of frustration for Ralph, he is sentimental about them today. In the late ’90s, when Dr. Bronner was dying of Parkinson’s Disease, Ralph spoke all 3,123 words of the peppermint label onto a cassette and gave it to his dying father.

“He called me and said, ‘Did I write all of this?’ and I said ‘Yes, Dad. You did.’”

Ralph has not changed a single word on the labels since his father died in March of 1997.

Dr. Bronner was born Emmanuel Heilbronner (he later dropped the “Heil” to disassociate his name from the phrase “Heil, Hitler!”) to a family of German soap makers in 1908. He moved to Milwaukee in 1930 and married Paula Wolfart in 1933. They had three children: Ellen, James and Ralph.

Aside from being a fourth generation soap maker, Emmanuel was a visionary obsessed. He gave speeches, handed out flyers and sent 200 telegrams to President Roosevelt demanding “Peace on earth through one God!”

Despite his peaceful ideas and harmless nature, a bizarre event quickly changed Dr. Bronner’s life for the worse. In 1945, Chicago police found a man nailed to a cross under an elevated train track, and the man claimed he was dying for “Dr. Bronner’s peace plan.” Although Bronner did not know this man or what he meant by “peace plan,” he was arrested and committed to a mental hospital in Elgin, Ill.

Emmanuel underwent six months of manual labor and electric shock treatment (which caused the blindness he suffered for the last 30 years of his life). Finally, on his third attempt, Dr. Bronner escaped from the institution after stealing $20. However, he didn’t return to his family in Milwaukee, rather went to California where he started his soap company out of a Los Angeles hotel. Meanwhile, Ralph and his siblings lost their mother to an illness and lived in more than a dozen foster homes.

“Creative geniuses don’t always make good fathers,” says Ralph. “I don’t think Mozart would’ve stopped writing a symphony to take his kid to the park.”

Despite the strained relationship with his father, Ralph has grown to appreciate the man who spent most of his life running a soap company while wearing a leopard skin bathing suit. Ralph now understands that the soap was simply a way for his passionate father to spread his message to hopefully improve the planet he called “Spaceship Earth.”

“Dad used to say ‘Everybody, Jew or Gentile, uses soap,’ and he’s right. I’d hate to be downwind from someone who didn’t,” says Ralph.

Comments (1)

SuekOctober 31st, 2006 at 5:42 am

I like the slogan “our soap makes your crotch tingle”. It reminds me of Fay Weldon’s rejected advertising slogan “vodka makes you drunker quicker”. I have never seen this soap in the UK. I shall have to look for it.
So how did he go blind? I was reading somewhere the other day (can’t remember where) that in the early days of ECT psychiatrists were worried about eyesight.

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