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Dr. Bronner invented the peppermint oil soap for soiled diapers

Look for the soap with the peace plan on the label

Emil Bronner. At the corner, he hopped out of the station wagon, hung onto the door handle with one hand, and jogged the rest of the way to his house.
  • Emil Bronner. At the corner, he hopped out of the station wagon, hung onto the door handle with one hand, and jogged the rest of the way to his house.
  • Image by David Covey

On March 9, 1945, a man named Fred Walcher got himself crucified. In Chicago, on the framework under an el station, after dark. When the cops found him and pulled him down, bleeding and semiconscious, he wouldn’t say who had nailed him up there.

“I’m dying for peace,” he gasped. "I'm dying for Dr. Bronner’s Peace Plan.”

Dr. Who? And his what?

The police got the full name out of Walcher Emil Bronner, a chemist. The cops found Dr. Bronner later that night, making soap at the factory where he was research director.

When I finally found Dr. Bronner, it was on a hot Friday night and he was sitting on the porch of the Escondido Women’s Club Building.

When I finally found Dr. Bronner, it was on a hot Friday night and he was sitting on the porch of the Escondido Women’s Club Building.

“Are you Bronner?’’ they demanded. He admitted it.

“Do you have a peace plan?”

He said he did.

“Come with us.’’

He came.

He dipped a towel into the hot, soapy water, wrung it out, then covered his face with the damp, steaming cloth. Then he wet and wrung it again, massaged his hair, arms, and torso, “always moving toward the heart."

He dipped a towel into the hot, soapy water, wrung it out, then covered his face with the damp, steaming cloth. Then he wet and wrung it again, massaged his hair, arms, and torso, “always moving toward the heart."

The crucifixion, Bronner now says, was front-page news in the Chicago papers, and the item was picked up by many other papers and wire services. When the reporters crowded into Walcher’s hospital room, flash bulbs popping and pens scratching. Bronner was there, too, with plenty of copies of his peace plan. Walcher still declined to name his assailants; the plan, he insisted, was the thing. It was his reluctance to accuse anybody, though, that was news; the peace plan got only passing mention.

That was thirty years ago. Today, people are still dying for a peace plan, and Dr. Emil Bronner is still making soap and trying to get someone to pay attention to his ideas. Nowadays, though, the people who usually come to him are not cops, but more likely are long-haired admirers left over from the Sixties.

One of these visitors was me. I got interested in Dr. Bronner, his soap and his message, the same way most people do: a friend had a bottle of the stuff in her shower stall. Made with pure peppermint oil, it smelled good, made your skin tingle, and the label was fascinating. There were 1700 words of copy on the quart-size container, in addition to a list of ten of the eighteen ways he says you can use his product. (Toothpaste? Mouthwash? Douche? I don’t know about the last one, but the others seem true — tastes like soap, though.)

“Thank God” reads part of the label's message, “we ascend up from dust, trained-brave, evolving united-guided by full truth, God’s law, the Moral ABC Hillel taught Jesus to unite all free!”

And what was this Moral ABC? “1st perfect thyself! 2nd work hard! 3rd Win Victory, teach All-One 4 billion & overnight we’re all free, All-One! For once the Moral ABC united the whole human race. East, West, Border, breed & birth, unites all of God’s space-ship Earth in All-One-God-Faith; then & only then no matter how rough the trip, how high the toll, you are the captain of the ship, you are the master of the soul! Win Victory!”

This intrigued me, and I decided I would make an effort to meet the man behind all the words and the sweetly scented bubbles. When I finally found Dr. Bronner, it was on a hot Friday night and he was sitting on the porch of the Escondido Women’s Club Building. Surrounded by a circle of friends, employees, and admirers, he had just announced virtual completion of the “final revision” of his soap label for the quart bottle. ‘This is a statement that’s going to shake this earth,” he declared in a noticeable German accent. “Now I want you to help me in finalizing a few of these lines. Jenny, read me the part we were talking about. ”

A woman on his right, a part-time secretary, looked down at a sheet of paper and began to recite. Dr. Bronner leaned in her direction. He was wearing a white laboratory coat and brown corduroy pants. His skin was dark brown, well-cured by a thousand baths in the North County sun. He is all but blind, and dark glasses covered with pinprick lenses covered his eyes. Square hands, one cupped under a pointed chin, seemed too large for his thin arms.

He raised an angular finger to point out the problematic phrase. “Should I take 'lightning-like’ from where it is and place it farther along?” A few suggestions were offered, but before the issue was resolved, Bronner moved on to another difficult passage: “A human being grants friend and enemy free speech, or that being is not yet human.” My pen could not keep up with his ruminations about possible variant readings.

Every Friday night, the All-One-Faith-In-One-God-State-Universal-Life-Church meets at the Escondido Women ’s Club. This evening there were about ten people on hand, of whom several were employees, and two, myself and a friend, reporters. The turnout, we found, was not usually that large. We also learned that the doctor had announced the “final” label revision not once but many times before.

For two hours Dr. Bronner lectured, speaking nonstop about a jumble of topics: Richard Nixon was the most courageous president we ever had; the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago were a production of the communists, in which the rioters provoked the police into retaliation; Watergate was a frame-up instigated by the Democrats to discredit Nixon; after World War II, Communist assassins murdered sixty-six of the most prominent Americans who were opposed to their plans of conquest. He also mentioned some new uses for his peppermint soap that had recently been discovered: he put it on a night or two earlier when mosquitos were bothering him, and they stayed away; someone also had told him it relieved poison ivy and poison oak.

After the meeting he invited us to spend the night at his place, and we followed him home, out a series of winding roads to Panorama Crest, where the street sign was topped with a larger plaque directing visitors to the “All-One-Faith-In-One-God-State, Inc.” At the corner, Dr. Bronner hopped out of the station wagon, hung onto the door handle with one hand, and jogged the rest of the way to his house, expertly skimming over the potholes with an assurance that, for a blind man, must have come from long familiarity.

Down the hill from there, in a plant that is a collection of steel storage sheds around an old stucco ranch house, his soap is bottled and shipped out, along with his instant raw vegetable soup, balanced seasoning, mineral salt, and a dozen other health food products. From his hilltop redoubt, Dr. Bronner concentrates as much effort as he can on his new labels and spreading the words they contain. And he talks. Incessantly. Thirteen hours worth during the day and a half I spent with him.

“Let me show you how I bathe with the soap,” he insisted when we got inside the house. It was almost midnight; everyone else was asleep, but he led us into a small bathroom, peeled off his shirt, and turned on the hot water in the sink. “This saves water as well as giving your body a massage and cleaning,” he said while squirting a dab of soap into the sink and swishing it around. “You just put in about a quarter ounce, not enough to make it sudsy.”

He dipped a towel into the hot, soapy water, wrung it out, then covered his face with the damp, steaming cloth. Then he wet and wrung it again, massaged his hair, arms, and torso, “always moving toward the heart. Always toward the heart.” And always he was talking, talking. He kept us up for two more hours that night.

It was hard for me to put together what I knew of the different pieces of his life — soapmaker and rabbi, for openers. But he was undismayed by the apparent discontinuity. In fact, the next morning when we sat down in his living room he insisted there were not merely two Dr. Bronners, but four. He started enumerating and describing them, each sketch fading into a homily that was nearly a duplication of something from one of his labels or leaflets. By the time we had finished late that afternoon, we had talked about not four but eight Dr. Bronners, and had only come as far as 1941 in his history, four years before Fred Walcher’s crucifixion.

One of the most recent of these identities is among the most paradoxical: Bronner the counterculture celebrity. His son Jim, who oversees the manufacture of the soap at a plant in Los Angeles, described to me how he and his brother Ralph, who lives in Milwaukee, used to get together in the early Sixties when Ralph came to visit during summer vacation. They would try to come up with a new design for the soap label — something snappy and catchy, something that could get the stuff moving.

“We were making about ten gallons of soap a week in 1961,” Jim recalled, “and we couldn't think of some new label design that seemed to help.” In 1968, though, his father negotiated a deal with a businessman to give away free 100,000 bottles of the soap in Israel, to introduce it to the Holy Land. In anticipation of that venture, he redesigned the label, changing the colors from gold and black to blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag.

The Israel deal fell through. But the new soap label stuck, and soon thereafter the soap began catching on — among, of all people, the hippies of San Francisco. The actual beginnings are lost to history, but no doubt some Haight-Ashbury denizen picked up a bottle, was turned on by the smell and the “No synthetics! None!” declaration on the label. And it’s not unlikely there was an alluring profundity in the “All-One” philosophy of the long lines winding around the plastic container.

Word of mouth advertising being the best, one thing led to another. As Dr. Bronner tells it, that summer of flower power he had a bit of trouble with the “socialistic bureaucrats” of the Food and Drug Administration over claims he had made on the label of his mineral salt, and the government had seized some of his inventory. “I had some money in the bank then,” he told me, “and I figured it was time to forget the business and write my books. But then one day these four long-haired gentlemen — I can’t call them hippies — showed up at my house from San Francisco, each with a hundred dollar bill, wanting to buy a drum of my soap. Then orders kept coming in the mail, and what could I do? Now I work eighteen hours a day — eight running the business and ten trying to unite the world with the Moral ABC.”

Sales climbed despite the right-wing philosophy expressed on the label and the doctor’s seeming antipathy toward just about all that the counterculture was thought to stand for (“Absolute cleanliness is godliness!" insists the quart label. “We raise coward-tax-leech-slave, unless we raise all hard-working, military-trained, united, armed brave!”). But maybe the disparity was only on the surface. The counterculture was always indulgent of idiosyncracy, especially if singularity was coupled with something creative. And the soap certainly puts those two elements together.

Whatever the reason, Jim Bronner told me that for a while after the soap sales took off in 1968 (he now makes about 150,000 gallons a year), his father frequently had a house full of footloose pilgrims from the Love Generation, whom he harangued and plied with samples. That wave has passed now, but the soap is an established artifact of the culture which that generation shaped. Probably a million people use it, and the number is growing. Dr. Bronner says he has never advertised it (son Jim is not so sure, saying that perhaps a few tiny ads were placed in health food publications some years ago). He has no sales force either. So far, his own verve has been sufficient.

But what of the previous identities Dr. Bronner told me about? He started with four:

  1. Bronner the German Jewish boy, born "there in 1908. His father was a wealthy soapmaker, owner of three factories. Soap had been the family business for sixty years. (That’s why the label says, “Guaranteed since 1848 by Einstein-Heilbronner,” which was the family’s original name.) He was still a boy when he was baptized into the reality of his homeland’s anti-Semitism. This baptism was literal, with a font full of urine, administered by a gang of gentile youths.
  2. Bronner the athlete, involved in German and Jewish physical culture groups, hiking, camping out, worshipping the fully toned body.
  3. Bronner the Zionist and student soapmaker. He says he leaped into the campaign for a Jewish homeland and came into conflict with his domineering father, who wanted no talk of politics in his factories.
  4. Bronner the Socialist-Idealist-Soapmaker and Master Chemist. “‘Jewish boys are soft; they can’t work with their hands.’ That’s what they said when I was studying to be a soapmaker, ” Bronner muttered. As part of the soap-maker’s final examination, a candidate had to pour soap into an open wooden barrel, then seal it up by hand before the soap could leak out. They were sure he could never do it, but Bronner showed them. He practiced and practiced, passed the test, and became heir apparent to his father’s business.

But there were Nazis among the workers in the plants, and even some Communists. It seems that Bronner tangled with both of them, and, as a result, with his father. “‘If you talk about politics or religion in my plant again, you can get out!’ ’’ he says his father told him, “’We are here to make soap, not politics!’ ”

Somewhere during this recitation, Dr. Bronner fetched a tape recorder from his cluttered office, slipped a cassette into it, and continued, pausing frequently to listen to the last few sentences on the tape and often taping over again if a particular anecdote was not recounted in just the right form. It was evident that much of this he had committed to memory.

He had said there were four Bronners when he began his discourse. But now he went on without pausing. Bronner Number Five was the immigrant to America and successful soapmaker here. He did not say so, but apparently he had taken up his father’s gauntlet. This Bronner also became a husband, marrying a woman who was a maid for a wealthy German family living in Milwaukee. His wife, Laura, was the illegitimate daughter of a nun, who later committed suicide and left her to be adopted. Bronner says Laura was more beautiful than her adopted parents’ daughter and was hated for her comeliness. The Bronners had three children.

“That was before Hitler and the hate,” he said, “and I could make her happy then.”

It was during this period, in 1935, that he invented the peppermint oil soap, originally as a deodorizing agent for soiled diapers.

Bronner Number Six was unemployed and desperate. His employers laid him off in 1941, and Bronner believes the reason was anti-Semitism. By this time the world was caving in everywhere. Of his family, only a sister, who had taken his place as head of the soap plant after he emigrated, got out of Germany. Bronner helped her get to America, and she stayed with him for a while. But she didn’t approve of his wife. In her view, her brother had dishonored both his religion and his class by marrying a Catholic servant girl. Laura was injured in a fall about this time, shortly after their third child was born, and never fully recovered. Bronner blamed the sister for the fall and threw her out.

Shortly after this incident, he found another job as consultant to a soapmaker who was working for the government war effort. That was Bronner Number Seven. He didn’t tell his employer he was Jewish. Bronner Number Eight, who soon thereafter became research director for a manufacturer in Chicago, turned decidedly anti-rabbinical after watching some bearded rabbis intoning prayers over an empty mixing tank and pretending to make kosher soap.

From here the story became harder to follow, more disrupted by the memorized soliloquies. Eventually, though, several more Bronners were outlined: Bronner the widower, whose wife became suicidal and finally died in a state hospital near Chicago. Bronner the war victim, whose parents were gassed by the Nazis. Before their deaths, his sister sent him telegrams demanding money with which to buy their release. “But I couldn’t do it,” he said. The last thing he heard from them was a six-word postcard from the concentration camp. It read: “You were right. Your loving father.”

Bronner had by this time developed the early versions of his peace plan. It proposed a United States of the World, with a world congress composed of one representative for each million people. He printed up copies and passed them out at meetings and lectures. Presumably, this was how Fred Walcher got hold of it.

After Walcher’s crucifixion, Bronner pursued his attempt to publicize the plan at the International Center of the University of Chicago. But he got into trouble when he demanded the chance to address the Center’s public meetings. One afternoon in March, 1946, he was in the Center director’s office, trying to get permission to speak to a meeting about his plan, when two policemen came in and said his car was illegally parked and asked him to come with them. “I told them to wait half an hour,” he recalled. “There I was trying to unite the world with a real peace plan and they want me to come to the station with them because my car is parked wrong. Holy man! And when we did go outside I could see that my car was parked fine. It was a setup, a trap.”

So it seemed. Bronner was jailed, and a week later, with his sister’s signature on the papers, committed to a state hospital. There, he says, he ended up in solitary confinement, sleeping at night while tied to a bare concrete slab and periodically tortured with shock treatments.

This was another identity: Bronner the concentration camp inmate. In his mind, psychiatrists and their hospitals were one with Nazi and Communist murderers. He has since bought and given away 60,000 copies of a Reader's Digest article about how innocent people get put away in mental hospitals for no reason.

He was released once, but when he subsequently tried to get his sister’s attorney disbarred, he was soon recommitted. During the second stretch he escaped three times and was caught twice. The third time, in September of 1947, he managed to get out of Illinois and ended up in Los Angeles.

Bronner made the rounds of soap companies in L.A. without success. “He was known in the industry as a brilliant chemist,” Jim Bronner told me, “but his Chicago stories had preceded him and nobody would give him a job.” Dr. Bronner tells of sleeping on the roof of a YMCA building for a while. Eventually he managed to start his own business, making and selling his mineral salt to health food stores. He was making his soap then, too, but it wasn’t moving well. He took over the bottom two floors of a cheap hotel for the struggling operation, and also spent many hours at meetings of political conservatives and health food devotees, distributing his religious pamphlets and literature.

He stayed in Los Angeles until 1963, when his business had grown enough to enable him to move to Escondido. “Do you know why I picked Escondido?” he asked me at one point. “Because the biggest avocado packing plant in the world is here, and when you eat them with my mineral salt, avocado is almost perfect nutrition.” Sure enough, the Calavo avocado plant is right across the street from his own. “I wanted them to work together with us, sell the mineral salt with the avocados right on the supermarket shelves. But they wouldn’t do it. I don’t know why.”

These years accounted for several more of the many Bronner identities. Bronner the anti-fluoridation crusader has been, he insisted, one of the most successful. He claims to have stopped fluoridation in a half dozen cities, and displays printed reproductions of congratulatory telegrams from several of them to back him up.

In 1962 he visited Germany. On the way, he stopped off in New York City and spent a month holed up in a hotel, telephoning every one of that city’s 600-plus rabbis to question them about Hillel’s Moral ABC and ask for the chance to speak to their congregations. He got many different versions of Hillel, but only one kind of response to his request for time — more than 600 refusals that varied only in tone and courtesy.

But while in Germany he did manage to speak at a temple, to a group of young people who were training to spend time on an Israeli kibbutz. When he finished, he said, more than ten of them stood up and shouted, “You are our rabbi! You have taught us much!” That is how Emil Bronner became a rabbi.

Today he has become Bronner the boss, with a successful business and troubles with the Internal Revenue Service to prove it. He is also Bronner the increasingly frustrated old man, desperate to gain an audience for his ideas and largely unable to do so outside of his soap labels. Perhaps that is why he revises them so often, even holding up a shipment of orders while he throws out thousands of already-printed ones, agonizing over the rewording of the tiny print, then exultantly announcing, as he has time and again, that the new one is the final, ultimate version.

When we left Escondido the next day, we were loaded down with free samples of soap, soup, and salt, along with stacks of literature (one copy was never enough). But that wasn’t the end of our encounter. Two days after I got home the phone rang. I picked it up and a woman's voice said, “Stand by for Dr. Bronner.” Then he came on, talking as fast as ever. “Chuck, there isn’t much time! I want you to go to Modesto. Find Walcher's house there. It’s on Hatch Road.”

After Walcher’s crucifixion, Bronner didn't see him again until after he reached Los Angeles, penniless and with few opportunities. Then (miraculously, he believes) he ran into Walcher one day while crossing the street. Walcher loaned him $600, just enough to get started with his mineral salt. Walcher later settled in Modesto, east of San Francisco, worked as a mason, and died sometime during the early Sixties. Then in January, 1976, in a conversation with a woman from Modesto who had once refused Walcher’s proposal of marriage, Bronner said he realized in a flash that the Chicago crucifixion was not just a fluke.

“Fred Walcher was the Second Coming of Christ!” he thundered over the telephone wires. “Holy man! The woman I was talking to didn't believe it. She said, ‘In my Bible, it says that when Jesus returns it will be as a king, and the earth will shake and the clouds will rise to heaven.’ But that was it! When Fred Walcher was crucified, the earth shook and the clouds rose to Heaven!” (By this he meant the atom bomb, which was first detonated in July, 1945, in New Mexico. The interval and distance from Chicago was of no consequence to his interpretation.)

“I want to buy that house,” he shouted. “I want to buy it and make it a shrine for the All-One-God-Faith. Go to Modesto. Chuck! Find it!” He didn’t wait for me to reply. “And there’s some other things that should go in your article that are more important than anything about Bronner. I don’t have much time. They murdered so many of the real peace-loving American patriots, Forrestal, Stettinius, Liebman, and who knows, maybe next is Bronner. But there are six of my inventions that need patent protection. Help me get it, Chuck. I don’t want any money for me from them; it’s all for the church, for mankind. There’s the Essene birth controller (a device employing citrus juice in a suppository which would, he said, lower the pH in a woman’s vagina to the point where conception would be impossible for twenty-four hours — or, as he put it, “twenty-four orgasms, whichever comes first”). And the instant carbon dioxide firebombers for stopping forest fires. (His design would adapt fire extinguishers so they could be built into the hundreds of mothballed Air Force bombers and used to stop forest fires; in cities, he says, helicopters could be loaded with tanks of it, to be dispensed with hoses against smaller blazes.) And two-billion-windpower generators to charge ninety-six-billion batteries, which could run all the factories and homes in the country.

“Chuck! America has six percent of the world's people but it uses up thirty-five percent of the fuel. No wonder we’re hated around the world. Holy Man! With these windpower plants we can run everything and only use six percent of the fuel. Then we can bring peace and unite this world with the Moral ABC!”

These other “inventions” weren’t really his, except for the mineral salt, which he insists contains the right mineral balance to eliminate tooth decay naturally.

And not only does he not have much time, he explained, but the world doesn’t either. That’s because Halley’s comet is due back in 1986. Dr. Bronner is convinced that the comet is a spaceship directed by advanced humane (“That’s not ‘human,’ ” he insisted to me, and spelled the word to make sure I had it right) beings from the area of either Sirius or Alpha Centauri, who are monitoring our planet’s progress toward “Fulltruth” compliance with God’s laws. Since we have been breaking these laws rampantly and shamelessly, the comet has been coming closer during each pass since 1682. In 1986, or at the latest in 2062, when it returns again, Bronner is afraid it will collide with our planet; the resulting “supernova” explosion will be a final sign of God’s judgment on us, visible to the whole watching universe.

“I drove myself blind working to get this message out,” Bronner said. “And maybe I talk too much. But when you know what I know, it’s hard to be quiet.” In another moment he hung up.

It is hard to get Emil Bronner, rabbi, soapmaker, master chemist, and teacher, out of my mind. So what if most of his political judgments are patently fantastic, and his personal style is guaranteed to keep people from taking him seriously? So what if he had to wait for a generation of young people who were determined to explore the irrational before he could even sell his excellent soap? As his son Jim said, “He’s a brilliant man. Many of his ideas have been way ahead of their time, and maybe some still are. ’’ Moreover, his life story is like a prism, refracting the dark colors of the past half century into a bright spectrum of personal experience. If he had been able to communicate better, if he had been listened to, he might have been able to contribute more to the world than an unusual soap with an even more unusual label. Much more.

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Comments

What a rightwing nutjob! Always beware of religious extremists, who claim to have all of the answers, if we just listened to them. We end up with dangerous individuals like the infamous cult-leaders Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite and David Koresh. They eventually died, but took brainwashed cultists with them.

While passing through San Diego in 1978, I must have picked up a copy of the San Diego Reader, as I remember reading this article. It stayed with me -- especially the story about the crucifixion. I've retold the story many times over the past 40 years.

Around that time, I met a very frail Dr. Bronner in People's Food in Solana Beach. He was accompanied by two simpering men wearing Dr. Bronner T-shirts -- my initial impression was that they were his groupies! -- and a woman. I assumed at the time that she was his wife, but upon re-reading this article, I realize she may have been Jenny, his secretary. She explained the group had come to check out the stock of Dr. Bronner products, and introduced him to me with great gravitas: "I would like to introduce you to Dr. Emmanuel H. Bronner." I shook his hand. "Charmed, I'm sure," I said. He responded with ramblings that I recognized as quotes from his soap labels.

After finding soaps, baked corn chips, and who knows what else on the store shelves, the Bronner entourage left the building!

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