Here in 2023, we are celebrating 75 years of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, the company my grandfather Dr. Emanuel Bronner founded in 1948. There have been many, many conversations about how exactly to commemorate this milestone. Part of the quandary is that 1948 is not really when our story began. Dr. Bronner was in fact the third generation of his family to make soap. So in an effort to begin at the beginning, I want to share with you all five of the generations in my family who have made soap, beginning in Laupheim, Germany in 1858 and up through 2023 in Vista, California.
First Generation of Soapmakers: Emanuel Heilbronner (1833-1903)
The first family soapmaker was Emanuel Heilbronner, grandfather and namesake of my grandfather Dr. Emanuel Bronner. After receiving his certification as a master soapmaker from the guild headquarters in Ulm, (now) Germany, he set up his soapmaking operation in the basement of his house in Laupheim to the east. In the floors above, he and his wife Louise raised their 11 children. At least five of his eleven children continued in the soapmaking tradition.
I treasure the copy we have of his soapmaster’s certificate translated as follows:
We the signed underneath, the headmaster and the manager of the union of soapmakers, authenticate herewith, that Emanuel Heilbronner from Laupheim, who was to do his master sample with allowance from the district office on the 22nd of March 1858. His examination got the value of “very good” and this with the recognition of the district department of the king on the 25th of March 19, 1858 he is allowed to practice the soapmaking profession, and he gets this master letter for legitimation.
Ulm, 25th of March 1858
Koenigishes ober amt Ulm
Head Guild Master
My heart is tied to this building. My family and I had the joy of visiting this house and standing in the very basement where the soap was first made. I chuckled at my 6’5″ brother’s inability to stand upright under the low ceilings. In 2018, my brothers David and Mike purchased the Heilbronner home in Laupheim. A kind lady who was about to sell the building to developers, heard our story and offered to sell it back to us instead. It is currently under renovation, to raise the ceilings among other things, and will be an assisted-living home for adults with autism, who will also host a small museum about the family’s soapmaking history in the basement.
Second Generation of Soapmakers: The Heilbronner Brothers – Sigmund (1867-1939), Berthold (1872-1942) & Karl (1879-1940)
The Laupheim soapmaking operation that had been founded by their father was taken over by their oldest sister Pauline and her husband Abraham Erhlebacher. Laupheim was not big enough to merit two soapmakers, so the three brothers headed west to Heilbronn, where the family had roots and where the family name Heilbronner had come from when Jewish last names had been forbidden in the early 1800s. (The family last name previous to then had been Einstein.)
While all three brothers were trained and gifted in soapmaking, Sigmund had the most technical and chemical expertise, Karl oversaw production, and Berthold handled the administrative, bookkeeping, and employee relations. Berthold’s daughter Luise (my great aunt) recalls him as a very compassionate and well-regarded employer. After World War II when she visited Heilbronn, she met with former employees who had fond memories of him. The brothers formed the Madaform Soap Company, and eventually ran three factories in the area, distributing soap across the country.
Karl and his family emigrated to America in 1936 where he became managing director of a soap factory in Massachusetts. He died in 1940. Berthold and Sigmund continued to run operations in Heilbronn, even as the situation deteriorated throughout the country for Jews. Berthold’s children, all of whom had already fled the country, pressured their parents to leave Germany as well, but they refused. Not only did they still have loyalty towards their homeland but they also may have hesitated at their age to start over in a new land.
The 1939 Decree for the Exclusion of Jews from Economic Life forced the sale of the company for 1 Deutsche Mark to a Dr. Albert Bauder, who announced cheerfully in a letter to Madaform customers that the company had passed into “Aryan hands.” Sigmund died shortly after in May of 1939. Berthold, his wife Franziska, and Sigmund’s widow Friederike continued living in Heilbronn while Luise, who was established in the U.S., worked to get them visas to leave, an increasingly difficult option. The visas to the U.S. came through on December 5, 1941 but with the bombing of Pearl Harbor two days later and the U.S. entering WWII against Japan and Germany within the week, the visas could never be used.
Berthold, Franziska, and Friederike were arrested March 31, 1942 and deported to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in then Czechoslovakia where Berthold and Friederike perished shortly after due to the wretched conditions. Franziska survived for two years but was transported to the extermination chambers in the Auschwitz Camp in May 1944.
As tragic and traumatic as this generation of our story is, there has been some solace in the connections the family made after the war. Luise visited Heilbronn several times and established a scholarship for students to study abroad in the U.S. to foster cross-cultural understanding. There is a school and a street in Heilbronn named in her honor.
Third Generation of Soapmakers: Dr. Emanuel Bronner (1908-1997)
The third generation of my family’s soapmakers is the one you know best: Dr. Emanuel Bronner, my grandfather, founder of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. Though named in tribute to his grandfather Emanuel, he was called Emil. He was the oldest child and only son of Berthold. He trained as a soapmaker apprentice to take over the family business in Heilbronn.
However, soapmaking wasn’t all that interested him. He developed a view of humanity that did not entirely sync with his family’s Jewish worldview, and he was very vocal in speaking about it in the family’s Madaform factories. His father felt his views were disruptive and gave his son the ultimatum: stop the philosophizing or leave. At the age of 21 in 1929, Emil left Germany for the United States.
For the first decade plus he worked for numerous soap manufacturers, helping them to set up operations and create new products. He was based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but traveled the country to follow the work. On his naturalization certificate in 1936, he took the name Emanuel Theodore Bronner. He dropped the “Heil” from his last name because of its connection to the common Nazi greeting. Several years later, he changed Theodore to Herbert, and from then on signed his name, “E.H. Bronner.” Emanuel married Paula Wohlfahrt in 1933 and had three children: Ellen, Ralph, and James (my dad).
With the 1940s came intense hardship with tragedy from far and near. He watched helplessly as his homeland turned on his family, depriving them of their business, their livelihood, and eventually their lives. Then, Paula experienced a physical and emotional collapse and after living several years in the Manteno State Hospital in Illinois, she died in 1944.
Now widowed with three young children, Emanuel threw himself into the vision that had brought him to America in the first place: that we are all brothers and sisters on one Spaceship Earth. There is more that connects us than divides us. We need to embrace our shared humanity. He wrote a series of principles that he called the Moral ABC that all faiths and philosophies could agree on: we need to take care of ourselves and each other, to do what we can to help the world around us.
He spoke passionately about this to all who would listen. With his emphatic manner of speaking and unwillingness to talk about much else, he was arrested during one particularly impassioned speech at the University of Chicago, charged with speaking without a permit, and inexplicably incarcerated in the Elgin State Asylum. During his time there, he underwent electroshock therapy which likely contributed to his blindness later in life. He escaped on his third attempt and hitchhiked to California.
In California, he found a more receptive audience for his ideas. To thank his listeners, he would give them a bottle of his family’s pure Castile soap, scented with a zing of peppermint essential oil. Eventually he noticed that people took the soap but didn’t stay to listen to the ideas. So he printed his message on the bottle, and thus was born the iconic label that still wraps the soap bottles to this day.
He started selling products in 1948, beginning with quite a number of food products and nutritional supplements. The soap eventually took over as the primary product. When the 1960s arrived, the audience he had always looked for finally arrived. Hippies, naturalists, and all manner of free thinkers embraced the simple soap and its label of peace for people and planet.
Though he was fully blind by the 1970s, he moved the company down to Escondido, California, the land of sunshine and avocados. His focus was always on the message on the label. The more soap that sold, the more the label got into the hands of people to read it. He put his personal phone number on the label so that anyone who wanted to discuss the ideas could reach him. It is the same number for the company today.
He led the company (which he saw more as a mission than a business) with a devoted team for many years, until Parkinsons Disease in the mid 1990s slowly and inexorably brought him to a halt. He died March 7, 1997, the day my brother David’s child Maya Marie was born.
Fourth Generation of Soapmakers: Ralph (1936-2015) & Jim (1938-1998) Bronner
The fourth generation of my family’s soapmakers were two men I called Pop and Uncle Ralph. Jim (my dad) and Ralph Bronner were the two sons of Dr. Emanuel Bronner. Both of them had careers of their own apart from the company: Ralph was a middle school English teacher in inner city Milwaukee and Jim was a chemist and inventor at a manufacturing company in Los Angeles. However, they each played pivotal roles during their dad’s life and afterwards to ensure the continued existence and success of the company.
Ralph was the one-man sales force for the products. There was never any money spent on advertising and my grandfather’s version of a sales strategy was, “Put it on the shelf and it’ll sell!” While there was some truth to that, sales were helped along by Uncle Ralph’s “Soap Trips.” During his school breaks, he and my Aunt Gisela would load up his van with soap and his guitar, pick a city and visit every “Mom & Pop” health store in the phone book. He’d tell the story of his father and the unique label and play folk music. Everybody would leave as friends, with a bottle or two of soap to take home.
Jim was the chemical and technical expert and oversaw the soapmaking for his dad. Jim and his wife Trudy (my mom) also kept an eye on the business side of things and helped Dr. Bronner out of a couple tight spots, usually when my grandfather and the IRS butted heads on whether Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps was a business or a missional non-profit organization.
As Dr. Bronner’s health gradually declined throughout the mid-1990s, Jim became more and more hands on, driving the two hours south from Los Angeles to Escondido (San Diego) several times a week to steer the business. Once I graduated high school and moved on to college in 1994, my parents moved down to Escondido so that Jim could direct the company full time. Ralph would visit several times per year to help make key business decisions.
After Dr. Bronner passed away in 1997, Jim and Ralph continued leading the company, Jim at the business and technical helm and Ralph upholding and promoting the spirit of the company, written on the label that is still at the core of what we do today. These were difficult times as is often the case when a family business transitions from its sole founder to the next generation. Jim and Ralph, assisted by my mom Trudy, still CFO to this day, did a lot of careful planning and navigating.
Unfortunately, three months after Dr. Bronner passed away, Jim was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. He battled it fiercely for a year nearly to the day, succumbing June 12, 1998, six days after he escorted me down the aisle at my wedding. June 12 was also my Uncle Ralph’s birthday.
In the years following, Ralph continued to safeguard the soul of the company and share his father’s story of overcoming tragedy and developing his message of peace. For a time Ralph had a one-man off-Broadway show. He was a master storyteller and had a catalog of 30 or so stories about his dad, the company, and his own life. He’d ask the audience to choose numbers and those would be the stories he’d tell. Every show was different.
Ralph also worked with the following generation to guide the company to where it is today. Ralph continued to travel for business meetings and trade shows almost until his passing in 2015. I still hear from people who met Uncle Ralph on one of his many Soap Trips or shows, and they tell me how Ralph sang for them and then slipped them a $20 to help them out of a tight spot.
Fifth Generation of Soapmakers: David (1973) & Mike (1975) Bronner
The fifth generation of family soapmakers is the current generation, my brothers David and Mike Bronner. As we were growing up, soapmaking was not on our radar. The company was my grandfather’s thing, and although our dad was involved, it was only on the side. Very rarely did we interact with our grandpa’s work, and usually that was to listen in quiet bewilderment to his Moral ABC teaching. We all had some basic understanding of chemistry because of our dad’s constant experiments and inventions.
My brothers headed off to college across the country and graduated with degrees in Biology for David and English for Mike. David took up social work in Boston and Mike taught English in Japan. Shortly into his work, David began to sync with the message our grandfather had championed: that we are all connected to each other and to the earth and all its inhabitants and that we must act on the reality of our transcendent connection.
David reached out to our dad and Uncle Ralph to talk about how he might take part. Right about this time came our dad’s cancer diagnosis. David’s interest couldn’t have been more serendipitous. He moved his young family back west to California and spent a year getting up to speed with all things soap and business before our dad passed away.
Though the years following Jim’s death were very rocky for the company, which was still reeling from the passing of Dr. Bronner a year prior, David took very naturally to the business and under his leadership, sales steadily climbed.
Early on, David was just as interested in the advocacy of the company as the business. Not only was the company going to continue making superb products, but it would be the bastion of integrity in the industry. David championed causes such as the establishment of strong organic standards for body care, the reform of drug policy to acknowledge the non-psychoactive nature of hemp seed oil and free it for all its versatile uses, the importance of fair trade standards, and more recently the creation and implementation of the Regenerative Organic Certification, to name just a few causes.
As the company grew, so did the work, and when Mike finished his teaching commitment in Japan, he joined in with particular interest in expanding the international market. Together Mike and David scaled the company up. The company grew from less than $3 million in annual sales to nearly $200 million, from less than 10 employees to over 300 today.
And they’re not done yet!
A frequent question I receive is how can we all work together when we’re siblings. (And in case you’re wondering, I don’t consider myself a soapmaker—I joined in to help answer customer questions and to educate, which is still what I do today!) I’m sure each of us would answer that differently, and I likely could come up with a bunch of different answers on my own, but one part of it is that we each found our place, our distinctive area that utilizes our talents and our passions. We have high respect for each other’s abilities and strengths. And most importantly, we grasp the same underlying principles that at the core of everything is a care for humanity and the world and all its inhabitants. As our grandfather said, “We are All-One or None! All-One!”
So cheers to 75 years of Dr. Bronner’s the company, to 165 years of family soapmaking, and here’s to the next many, many years of soapmaking to come!