In the Spirit of Soap

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps may be Escondido's cleanest (and perhaps oddest) success story


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“There is no great genius free from some tincture of madness.” ——Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca


IN A PROMOTIONAL POSTER
for his Pure-Castile Soap, Emanuel H. Bronner is pictured cradling a 24-ounce bottle of his product, his smile both beatific and diabolic, as if holding the secret to the universe in his hands. His eyes, a portal to the soap-maker’s soul, are concealed behind dark pinhole glasses. Smoke rises from the bottom of the frame. He is the Dr. Strangelove of suds.

Dr. Bronner (as he referred to himself) didn’t make Dial soap, nor do his grandsons, David and Michael, today president and vice president, respectively, of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps in Escondido.

During a recent tour of the facility, Michael darts between the warehouse and his cluttered office, golf clubs neglected, a cellular phone pasted to his ear—testament to the company’s 30 percent growth during the past year. He estimates revenue at about $18 million for 2006, compared to about $4.7 million in 1997, the year of Emanuel Bronner’s death. At 31, Michael seems cut from a different cloth than his grandfather. The Brown University graduate sports black Pro-Keds, blue jeans and an untucked, white button-down shirt. Clean-shaven, he recently shed 14 years’ growth of beard so his girlfriend, an aspiring aesthetician, could practice on his smooth face.

“I was remodeled,” Michael says with a soft laugh.

In 1947, long before Eric Clapton and illegal immigration put Escondido on the map, Emanuel Bronner started down the road to the bucolic North County municipality following his escape from an Illinois mental institution, hitchhiking to Los Angeles on a Jackson pilfered from his sister’s purse. There, in a squalid 10-story apartment building, Bronner—typically wearing nothing more than a leopard-skin bathing suit—began crafting a soap, and a doctrine, that would find a thriving market among the 1960s counterculture.

The tingly peppermint, lavender and eucalyptus liquid’s “18-in-1” formula appealed to hippies, yippies and health foodies, who could use it to cleanse their VWs, bell-bottoms, hair, teeth, dogs and—if the label was to be believed—their spirit. Dumping the suds on the campgrounds would not bring bad karma. As explained in the dense pastiche of philosophical, religious and nearly apocalyptic text on the label—Emanuel’s “Moral ABC”—the soap is also biodegradable. The elder Bronner viewed his product as a medium for his message—that mankind and “spaceship Earth” could only be saved from the threat of nuclear war, Halley’s Comet or famine if the world’s disparate religions were to unite in an “All-One-God-Faith!”

While expanding the company’s product line to include everything from moisturizers to lip balms and energy bars, David and Michael have remained true to their grandfather’s model of “constructive capitalism,” the belief that a company should share its profits with workers. Dr. Bronner’s word-of-mouth marketing plan to this day includes next to no advertising, says Bronner’s surviving son, Ralph.

“He saw that soap—and it’s incredible that he saw this—would reach more people than books,” Ralph says. “Celestial Seasonings did put some sort of blah comments on the teabags . . . but they don’t put the gutsy stuff like ‘Stalin was a far greater mass murderer than Hitler —66 million dead!’ My father didn’t care. He put on that label everything he thought would help the Earth.”

Given their grandfather’s subversive fame, one might expect Michael and David (the latter of whom spent post-college downtime in Amsterdam) to wax reverently about their grandfather. Instead, they recall their relationship with Emanuel, blind for the last three decades of his life, as strained.

“I didn’t have your typical grandson-grandfather relationship,” says Michael, who grew up in Glendale. “He never took me to baseball games or anything like that. When I was 4 years old, I can remember coming down, and he’d usually lecture us about uniting the human race, making soap and about all the prophets of the world . . . It really wasn’t a conversation.”

David, who keeps his hair longer in the back, thus more outwardly embodying the company’s image, recalled family gatherings as “a little strange.”

“He’d be just, boom, talking about united spaceship Earth, and it really wasn’t too important to talk about anything else . . . It was important for us to, like, memorize various passages on the label.”

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