As we celebrate the 75th Anniversary in 2023 of Dr. Bronner’s as a soap company, I’ve been pondering my family’s soapmaking legacy. I got to thinking about all the different places my family has made soap and how these places represent the people who spearheaded them.
Our family’s soap story began much longer than 75 years ago. It began 165 years ago in 1858 when my grandfather’s grandfather began making soap in Laupheim, Germany.
Bronner Soapmaking Location #1: Laupheim, Germany
As I shared in my first series on Five generations of Soapmakers, our first family soapmaker was Emanuel Heilbronner, commissioned by the soapmaking guild in 1858. This is his house, where he made soap in the basement, and in the floors above, he and his wife Luise raised their 11 children. I had to ask for help with the words on the side because the first word, “Seifenliederei” literally translates to “soap boiler.” This is a very accurate description of how soap was made at the time. I also wondered if someone misspelled the last name since it seems to be missing an “n.” However, I learned that the symbol above the “n” means it is doubled—that’s German efficiency for you!
There are several remarkable things about this house:
1. It’s still standing.
2. I’ve been in it back in 2018.
3. My family members of 1858 were not tall. My brothers, who are 6’1” and 6’5” had to dodge light fixtures and hold their heads sideways not to hit the ceiling.
4. We now own it.
By “we,” I mean my brothers, David and Mike Bronner. This came about when my brother Mike was visiting Laupheim and speaking at their historical society about our family’s roots in the town. A lady in attendance came up to him afterwards and told him that she owned our family’s house and had plans to sell it to developers who were going to tear it down to build condos. However, after hearing our family’s story, she was so moved that she willing to sell it to my brothers at the price she paid for it.
The building is currently under renovation–to raise the ceilings and bring it up to code–and will become an assisted living home for adults living with autism. In the basement, there will be a museum display commemorating our family’s soapmaking legacy.
Bronner Soapmaking Location #2: Heilbronn, Germany
The second of my family’s soapmaking operations was to the west of Laupheim in the larger town of Heilbronn, where my great grandfather Berthold and two of his brothers, Sigmund and Karl, set up operations. They were very successful, but the 1938 decree that excluded Jews from economic life in Germany forced the sale of the properties to an Aryan owner.
In 2008, my brothers David and Mike Bronner were in Germany for a conference and decided to swing by Heilbronn and see if they could find the factory. Indeed they did, and as Mike stood on tiptoe to peer in the darkened windows, a man came running out of the building demanding, “Was machst du?!” (What are you doing?!) Mike (who speaks very little German) responded apologetically in English that he was American and his family used to own this building and make soap there. The man quickly switched to English and explained that he had gone to university in the States and that he had something to show them. He ushered my brothers into the basement and showed them several of the original soapmaking vats that were still bolted and cemented into the floor. He also had some of the bar soaps that were made in there which he gave us.
We have since become good friends with Nikki Franks and his family. His family bought the property years after my family lost it. It is now a metal fabricating factory. However, things came full circle when “Santa” showed up at our December staff meeting in 2018 and gave my brothers a rusty bolt. Santa revealed to be Nikki himself, and he said the rest of the vat was held up in customs (I can’t imagine what they made of it), but this bolt represented the gift he and our German friends were making. The old soap boiler arrived at Dr. Bronner’s headquarters in Vista, CA several months later. It has now been preserved and will soon be the centerpiece of a display of our family’s history.
This picture above is from an advertisement for the Heilbronn company, which was called Madaform. It says that the factory produces specialty soaps, powdered soaps, and other cosmetics.
Bronner Soapmaking Location #3: Los Angeles, CA
This tenement apartment at 447 S. Hope St. in Los Angeles is where my grandfather, Emanuel Bronner, first started making his own soap in the U.S. in 1948. This apartment, which no longer stands, was conveniently located just a few blocks from Pershing Square where he would speak to audiences about his Moral ABC philosophy that later ended up on the soap label. In this apartment he would make up his batches of Peppermint Castile Soap as well as various food products.
I love this picture for a few reasons. Although I have never found a date or other context for this picture, I have studied it and pondered the scenario. Here’s the story I’ve come up with: Everyone is dressed so nicely, not like they were expecting to do heavy work that day. Likely, my Aunt Gisela (second from right) and my Uncle Ralph were visiting from Milwaukee and perhaps there was an outing planned, and my dad was either on leave or recently out of the Navy. But before they could go, a truck arrived and so they quickly had to load the shipment. It was probably my dad who suggested removing the railing and backing the truck straight up to the balcony for maximum efficiency. He was that sort of problem solver. Uncle Ralph likely took this picture because he always was the one with a camera around his neck. I love my grandfather’s (far right) charming smile and relaxed pose as everyone else seems to be focused on heavy work. He was probably glad to have his sons visiting and the prospect of a nice day out, as well as the joy of seeing his products get distributed. I do not know who the woman on the left is. That is a mystery I am still working to solve.
I wrote about my grandfather’s journey to Pershing Square in my article, How the Label was Born.
Bronner Soapmaking Location #4: Escondido, CA
When my grandfather outgrew brewing soap up in his Los Angeles kitchen and needed a permanent production facility, tales of the acres of avocado groves and cheaper land lured him to Escondido, CA in the outskirts of San Diego. One of my fondest memories of my grandfather was walking through the plant with him. (We always called the factory “the plant.”) Since he was blind, he had a certain way he’d put his hand on my arm to lead him. The plant was very quiet back then because there was no automation. Bottles were filled by gravity fed lines. Labels were applied by hand. The plant smelled like a combination of all the Castile scents put together along with the seasoning products he made. Every so once in a while, I come across a whiff of that combo and it takes me right back to this building.
This picture above of longtime employee Victoria Manzano shows the gravity fed lines that linked to soap tanks on a high platform. Each hose carried a different scent and was operated by a simple hand-turned valve. She then capped the bottles and applied the label with its message of peace. The labels were stamps whose adhesive needed to be moistened prior to applying to each bottle, and then the bottles were placed in the cases for shipping. Thousands upon thousands of bottles passed through the hands of Victoria and the four or five others who staffed the bottling room. The cases then shipped out to every health store in the country and even some locations worldwide.
Bronner Soapmaking Location #5: Vista, CA
In 2013 we were absolutely bursting at the seams in our Escondido location. We needed a bigger plant. We found it just down the freeway in Vista, CA in a facility that is roughly eight times larger than what we had in Escondido. And we have expanded to fill it nearly to capacity, too, in these past 10 years.
The Vista plant has a completely different feel from Escondido. It’s modern and bright and bustling. To keep up with demand, we brought in mesmerizing machines that bottle, cap, label, and palletize the products. Workers were retrained so there was no loss of position. We still have a handfill area, though, that handles smaller runs. A little bit of a throwback to the olden days.
The centerpiece of the Vista plant is this gorgeous row of bulk Liquid Castile Soap storage tanks, painted to coordinate with their scent labels. We call this the tank farm. I love all the potential cleanliness, not to mention the rainbow, of these tanks. In the foreground you can also see pallets and pallets ready to ship out to points beyond. Perhaps to New York or London or to your neighborhood store!
Although we are not set up for public tours, you can view two video tours I made of our facility here:
Liquid Soap Production
Bar Soap Production
And there is no telling where the next 75 years will take us and what soapmaking locations we might add to our legacy!
Five Generations of Soapmakers Built Dr. Bronner’s – In my previous article to commemorate Dr. Bronner’s 75th Anniversary, I discuss the five generations in my family that have led up to our soapmaking today.
The Poetry of the Lavender Label – What my grandfather Dr. Bronner reveals through his favorite poems and his own poetry lets us see inside his heart and mind.
How the Label was Born – The story of how the iconic Dr. Bronner’s Castile Label came to be is the story of my grandfather’s personal journey and mission.