I was an idealistic long-haired, bearded hippie in the late 1960’s when I picked up my first bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Liquid Castile Soap in a California health food store. It was back then that I was introduced for the first time to several staple products that became a part of my free-spirited life style – all-natural crunchy granola, nutritious brown rice and Dr. Bronner’s skin-tingling Peppermint Soap. I remember well my first reaction to that big navy blue & white soap bottle label, which was covered with tiny words running in all directions, filling up every single inch of space. The rambling text talked about an All-One-God-Faith and Moral ABCs, sprinkling Jewish and Christian ideas with the words of the poet, Rudyard Kipling and other unexpected sources. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but its oddness and quirky philosophy made me trust that this wasn’t just another commercial-hype Madison-Avenue-advertised brand from a big faceless company. On top of all of that, the label enthusiastically talked about using the all-natural soap for just about everything that could be washed, which fit right in with my simpler-is-better back-to-nature tendencies. I have travelled a long road in life from being a child of the 60’s to now being in my sixties, but the good Doctor’s strange and magical soap is still a part of my life, still wearing its strange words speaking a vision of a better world without war for all. Dr. Bronner’s Soap was one of those common experiences that many of us freedom-seeking sojourners have shared.
Many people have anecdotal stories about their use of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Peppermint Soap. I came across one recently in the new biography of Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. In it, the biographer recounts that Steve still held on to many of his hippie habits of hygiene when Apple first started becoming a big and successful computer company. Steve had practiced many austere dietary restrictions and fasting for years and came to believe that the only necessary hygiene required to combat body odor was to bath occasionally with Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Castile Soap – others subjected to being in enclosed office spaces with Steve did not agree. For all of us who lived through those heady times, it’s pretty clear that cleanliness was a subjective and relative quality at best.
In truth, I must admit that not all of the good Doctor’s suggestions for using his soap worked well for me. Neither I nor any of my friends could ever stand the soapy taste in our mouths long enough to use it to brush our teeth as the label suggested. Another use that I wasn’t totally thrilled by was using it to wash my hair. My long hair, which I usually wore in a braid, hung down to the middle of my back, but the soap would make my hair feel so dried out and filled with tangly snarls, that I couldn’t get a brush through it. As an all-over body soap, Dr. Bronner’s excelled and was truly a stimulating experience, but the peppermint oil was so strong that if you got it on your private parts while bathing, it could make you feel like your stuff was on fire. We learned a big word of wisdom for how best to use the soap – DILUTE! But the beauty for us of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap was that, if you were backpacking or vanning your way somewhere on the long and winding road, a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s was about all you needed to stay clean, do your dishes and wash your clothes. My only major mistake in bathing and basic chemistry was on a trip to an island in Peugeot Sound, Washington when, miles from any amenities like flowing fresh water, I made the mistake of soaping up and bathing in the Pacific Ocean. Nowhere on the bottle or in my limited years of experience did I anticipate the chemical reaction that salt water would have with the soap that now covered my body. On climbing out of the water, I realized that the soap had turned into a gummy film that now covered and adhered to my skin – and it would not wash off with any amount of salty ocean water. I spent a few miserable days before getting to enough fresh water to adequately rinse off. I’m sure that Dr. Bronner, an experienced chemist, could have warned me had he been there.
Back then, I knew little about the mysterious Doctor Emil Bronner. Today his incredible story is available all over the internet from Wikipedia to the Dr. Bronner’s company web site. And there is even an independent documentary film about him – Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox – produced and directed by Sara Lamm. It’s a fascinating story of growing up in a Jewish soap making family in pre-Nazi Germany. Born in 1908, Emmanuel (Emil) Bronner was allegedly a cousin of Albert Einstein. The story goes on to tell of him learning soap making from his father and uncles and eventually leaving the family business to set out on his own and emigrate to the United States in 1929. Dr. Bronner feared the rise of fascism and anti-semitism in Germany, but was unable to convince his parents to leave before it was too late – they both eventually died during the war in the Nazi concentration camps. Dr. Bronner had married and begun raising a family – and as the World War continued on, he began nurturing his peculiar philosophy of how to promote world peace. After the death of his first wife, and his parents, he became more earnest in his desire to spread his message to political leaders and the whole world. He spoke whenever and wherever he could. One agitated speech at the University of Chicago, for which he didn’t have a permit to speak, got him arrested and institutionalized at the Elgin Insane Asylum. There, he was subjected to forced labor, electric shock treatments and the possibility of lobotomization. Luckily, he escaped on a trip from the asylum and found his way to California with $20 he stole from the asylum caretaker.
Dr. Bronner founded his soap company and his first Peppermint Liquid Castile Soap product in 1948, the same year that the modern nation of Israel was established – something dear to his heart. The fifties found him espousing his message of world peace in Pershing Square, downtown Los Angeles. As the Fifties turned into the Sixties, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap was embraced by the new youthful counter-culture. His crazy-looking package appealed to the flower children and their anti-war sentiments. The brand continued to grow throughout the Seventies until, into the Eighties, Dr. Bronner’s was available in every health food store, big and small.
Dr. Bronner’s packaging now seemed to contain even more words than before, but it might have just been my perception of it. I had the good fortune to be a co-founder of the Mill Creek Natural Products brand during the late Seventies through the Eighties. I designed the brand from the original concept to the day we eventually sold it to a big corporation. During my years as creative director for the Mill Creek brand, we would often reference to Dr. Bronner’s product labels as an example of the ultimate “talking package.” I knew that the good doctor had lost his eyesight over time and probably had little patience with anyone who resisted his desire to pack as many words onto his labels as could possibly be squeezed. I came to call any product with overly word filled labeling as following the “Dr. Bronner School of Package Design.”
Over time, the Dr. Bronner brand introduced many new versions of the “18-in-1 Hemp Pure-Castile Soap,” from Almond to Lavendar and more. Dr. Bronner passed from this world in 1997, but his children and grandchildren continue on with the family soap business, promising never to change the words on his familiar packages, unless required by law – and so the far-out words and soap-making wizardry of Dr. Emil Bronner, master soap-maker and peace-maker extraordinaire, live on for new generations to discover and make their own.
Today, I am still a dedicated user of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Castile Soap, whether showering with it, using it to shave, or spraying a diluted mixture of it on my organic vegetable garden as a non-toxic pesticide. I even use it to wash my yoga mat with when it starts getting too funky for a close Chataranga or Child Pose. Thank you Dr. Bronner for your wonderful “Magic Soap” – and I still enjoy reading your “All-One-God-Faith” message as I stand holding the bottle in my shower every morning. I always seem to find something new in the words as well as uses for the wonderful soap. May your memory be a blessing.