A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why the weird religious ravings on Dr. Bronner's soap?

April 22, 1988

Dear Cecil:

Enclosed for your enjoyment is a bottle of "Doctor Bronner's 18-in-1 Pure Castile Soap," which you can get at any health food store. The soap is great, but you'll note the label is crammed with weird religious ravings. What's the poop, Scoop? Is Doctor B. really a "master chemist and Essene rabbi"? What's the story behind his company, All-One-God-Faith, Inc.? And — this one is urgent, Cece — how about the unusual birth control method Dr. B. recommends? Should I throw out my diaphragm and stock up on lemons and Vaseline?

Cecil replies:

Not unless you like gooey lemonade. As you can probably tell from the copy (can you imagine a slogan like, "Eternal Father, Eternal One! Exceptions eternally? Absolute none!" on the side of a Tide box?), "Dr." Emanuel H. Bronner is inhabiting a different plane of being from the rest of us. So don't take anything he says too literally.

Bronner is an 85-year old (as of 1993) German immigrant who hangs out in Escondido, California. (July 11, 2010 update: Emanuel Bronner died March 7, 1997 in Escondido at age 89.) He's not an MD or strictly speaking a rabbi, but claims he's got the equivalent of a PhD in chemistry, which I guess makes him a master chemist. He's also not your average soap maker. Whereas Messrs. Procter and Gamble dream (well, dreamt) of enzymes and long-chain fatty acids, Bronner dreams of world peace.

Bronner wants to convince mankind of the virtues of the "All-One-God-Faith," which, together with the "Moral ABC," his answer to the Ten Commandments, will unite the human race. The details of this can be a bit hard to follow. For example: "Replace half-true Socialist-fluoride poison & tax-slavery with full-truth, work-speech-press & profitsharing Socialaction! All-One! So, help build 4 billion Hannibal wind-power plants, charging 96 billion battery-banks, powering every car-factory-farm-home-monorail & pump, watering Babylon-roof-gardens & 800 billion Israel-Milorganite fruit trees, guarded by Swiss 6000 year Universal Military Training," etc.

Talking to the doc on the phone is the audio equivalent of reading one of his labels. He can be pretty linear when he wants to be, but eventually always veers off into a rap about the Essene rabbis and whatnot, delivered in a nutty-professor German accent. Believe me, it's an experience.

Bronner has had an eventful life. The son of a Jewish German soap maker, he emigrated to the U.S. and pleaded with his father to do the same when the Nazis came to power. The old man refused. One day Bronner got a postcard with the words, "You were right. — Your loving father." He never heard from his parents again.

Initially settling in the midwest, Bronner married the illegitimate daughter of a nun, who eventually became suicidal and died in a mental hospital. (He says she was tortured by the hospital guards.) He also began devising his plan for world peace. Fittingly, he took to the soapbox to promote it. One of his listeners, Fred Walcher, was so inspired that in 1945 he had himself crucified in Chicago in order to publicize the plan. (He survived.)

Later Bronner was arrested while trying to promote his plan at the University of Chicago and was committed to a mental hospital. He escaped three times, finally fleeing to California in 1947. He's been there cranking out soap and soap labels ever since.

Despite his eccentricities, Dr. Bronner has built his soap company into a prosperous concern, mostly by sheer force of personality. In the early days he would set up a table at health food conventions. If a dealer strayed within ten feet, Bronner would pounce and not let go until he'd gotten an order.

But things didn't really take off until he was discovered by the counterculture during the 60s. With the aid of his sons Jim and Ralph, who handle production and sales, he currently sells some 400,000 gallons of liquid soap and 600,000 pounds of bar soap a year. He says he's now worth $6 million — not bad, he notes drily, for somebody who's supposedly nuts.

Bronner's birth control method involves using lemon juice and Vaseline as a spermicide. While it's true the high acidity in lemon juice will kill sperm, doctors say it could also cause your insides to become irritated or burned. Besides, Vaseline isn't water soluble. You'd be clogging up your insides and wreaking God knows what kind of havoc. With all respect to Bronner, I'd advise sticking to diaphragms.

(For a translation of this page into Romanian, click here.)

(For a translation of this page into Polish, click here.)

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