On this day in 1997, Emanuel Bronner, soap manufacturer and amateur philosopher, died. Bronner produced Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, which in his day were known as much for the large amount of text printed on their labels, up to 3,000 words per bottle preaching variations on the theme of world peace, as for their natural ingredients and the fact that only a few drops are needed to wash up with them.
Emanuel Heilbronner was born on February 1, 1908, into the third generation of a family of soapmakers, who had become involved in the business in Heilbronn, Germany, in 1858. Toward the end of the 19th century, they began making Castile soaps, from non-animal products, usually olive oil, which are still a specialty of the firm. True to their Jewish roots, they also produced Shabbat candles.
Emanuel, known as Emil, received certification as a master soap-maker as well as an academic degree in chemistry. In 1929, after repeated clashes with his father related to soap manufacture, as well as over his own support for Zionism, Emil left for the United States, settling initially in Milwaukee. There, he dropped the first four letters from his last name, supposedly because of their association with the “Heil, Hitler” salute. He also urged his parents to leave Germany; they didn’t and both were murdered in the Holocaust. It has been reported that the last communication Emanuel received from his father was a postcard from Auschwitz reading, “You were right.” One sister ended up in the United States, another in Israel, living first at Kibbutz Ein Gev and later in Haifa.
In 1948, he began manufacture of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. The title of “Doctor” was one that Bronner bestowed on himself; he also styled himself a rabbi at times. By then, he had already become a crusader for world peace, and a vigorous opponent of both communism and water fluoridation. In 1945, he was arrested while lecturing at the University of Chicago without a permit. That led to his being committed to a mental institution, where he was subjected to shock treatments. After six months, Bronner escaped, and made his way to Los Angeles, where, according to his company’s informative website, he was “fond of saying he fit right in.”
When he noticed that people would buy his products without listening to his accompanying lectures, Bronner began to print his evolving philosophy on the bottles. He called his recipe for world peace his "Moral ABC." In it, he called for humans to put aside their ethnic and religious differences to work together to save “Spaceship Earth.” So that he would have time to preach his message, after the death of his wife in 1944, Bronner had his three children assigned to foster homes.
Bronner’s grandson, David, who now helps run the company, last year told an interviewer for Inc. magazine that Emanuel had managed his firm “basically [as] a nonprofit religious organization – which it was only to him." When the Internal Revenue Service went after him in 1985, he owed them $1.3 million and had to go into bankruptcy. At that point, one of his sons stepped in to get the company into financial order.
Emanuel Bronner died at age 89, in Escondido, California – where he had moved in the 1960s – after suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, and longtime blindness.
After Emanuel’s death, his family continued running the company, and have refused the many offers to sell it. Instead, they introduced a number of new products, which they had certified as organic, and adopted a policy of buying only fair-trade raw ingredients, including olive oils purchased from both Palestinian and Israeli farmers in the West Bank and Israel proper. They also introduced profit-sharing with their employees, and capped the salaries of senior executives, even those from the family. Although the family didn’t want to use the Moral ABC messages of the company’s founder as a posthumous marketing ploy, they discovered that consumers sought out the texts, so began to introduce written texts about the current philosophy of the company.
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