Dr. Emanuel (or Emil) Bronner was a third-generation master soapmaker born into a German-Jewish soapmaking family that had been making soap since 1858. By the turn of the century the family enterprise had expanded to three factories, the largest of which was in Heilbronn, where Dr. Bronner was born in 1909. He was trained in the guild system of the time and received a degree in chemistry.
Our grandfather was pretty intense from day one, and in his early 20s repeatedly clashed with his strict orthodox father and two uncles over his Zionist beliefs and new-fangled soapmaking ideas. His parents, like many bourgeois Jews in the late ’20s and early ’30s, expected the madness of the rising tide of fascist hate to blow over and didn’t want Emil rocking the boat. Our grandfather eventually got fed up and immigrated to the U.S. in 1929, where he became a consultant to the U.S. soap industry, helping to design factories and launch products.
Increasingly alarmed by the rise of Hitler, he repeatedly tried to get his family to leave Nazi Germany. His younger sisters got out, but his parents stayed until it was too late. The Nazis nationalized the factory in 1940 and Emil’s parents were deported and killed in the camps.
By this time our grandfather had fallen in love and in 1934 married our grandmother, Paula. They had three children: Ellen, Ralph, and our dad Jim. Paula was often sick and in and out of hospitals, and died too young in 1944.
Somehow in the midst of this massive personal tragedy, our grandfather experienced intense mystical love and the oneness of humanity. That we are all children of one ever-loving divine source. That in our ignorant blindness we’ll destroy ourselves, especially in a nuclear-armed world. He felt urgently called to his All-One mission to convince the public and world leaders alike that we must recognize our transcendent unity across ethnic and religious divides or we will perish. We’re All-One or None! All-One!
In the postwar era, diverse industries were using petrochemicals in everything from plastics to agriculture to personal care. Synthetic detergents were rapidly replacing natural soaps. With my grandfather’s quality soap recipes no longer in vogue, he started to manufacture them himself, selling his soaps on the side after lectures as he toured the country pumping people up on his All-One peace plan.
He soon realized, though, that people were coming to his lectures for the soap more than to hear what he had to say, so he started putting his message on the labels. Pretty genius move to communicate with people in their intimate bathing space.
With the rise of the counterculture, people increasingly rejected mainstream faceless polluting corporate America, and embraced our grandfather’s soap for its simplicity, versatility and biodegradability, and grooved on the message of peace and love. You could wash your dog, dishes, body and clothes by the river and not worry about it, and the soap became the iconic soap of the era. Dr. Bronner ran his company, All-One-God-Faith, Inc., as a nonprofit religious organization, and he dreamed of the day when humanity would lightning-like realize our transcendent unity and awaken in a new birth, catalyzed in part by the message on his soap labels. Dr. Bronner used all of his profits to further his mission and support various sustainable projects and causes.
But the IRS disagreed with his self-designated tax-exempt status and in the late ’80s forced the company into bankruptcy. Due to Dr. Bronner’s failing health, our dad Jim, along with our mom Trudy and Uncle Ralph, stepped in to right the ship and exit bankruptcy as a for-profit company, but they held true to the non-profit DNA and vision that informed everything our grandfather did.
We grew up working with our dad, who not only oversaw soap production for Dr. Bronner’s, but formed his own chemical consulting company (Bronner Chemical) where he developed — among other things — fire-fighting foam, still widely used today to fight structure and forest fires. Our dad, mom and uncle implemented progressive employee policies at Dr. Bronner’s, and continued to use the company profits to fund worthwhile causes, in particular afterschool programs for disadvantaged youth.
Dr. Bronner passed peacefully in his sleep on March 7, 1997, and tragically our dad was diagnosed soon after with lung cancer and died just a year later, but not before we shared an intense year of learning from him the ropes of ethical business and life. Inspired by the examples of both our dad and grandfather, we seek to honor them in everything we do.