Dr. Bronner busted out of the bin
Surely you didn't think a neurotypical person wrote that long-ass soap label
The mysterious all-purpose soap with the lengthy label has been a staple in crunchy households for ages. Where I grew up, in Eugene, Oregon, it’s common for people to bathe their babies with it, only to turn around and wash dishes with it. Dr. Bronner’s All-One Castile Soap — which is made to be heavily diluted, making it both eco-and wallet-friendly — can be used on your face or the floor, your linens or your labradoodle. Seriously, if you’re unfamiliar, it’s time to get right with whichever savior you belong to and ask “how did you not put this into my path yet?”
Also, if you’re unfamiliar, you may never have pondered over the absolutely bonkers label that wraps around this big cylindrical bottle.
I could not, having grown up seeing these bottles at the local natural food store (shout out to Sundance), have been less shocked that the titular Dr. Bronner was not only institutionalized, but escaped.
The wild story of “Dr.” Bronner
According to the company website, the Heilbronners have been making soap for close to 200 years. But it was Emanuel Bronner “a third- generation master soapmaker from a German-Jewish soapmaking family,” who created the company we know today. Born in 1908, he seems to have a been a deeply religious and ideologically-driven individual almost from the jump. He emigrated to the United States when, led by his “powerful personality, Zionist ideals and ideas for modern soapmaking” created tension with his father and uncles. Once in the U.S., he adopted the title of “Doctor” and no one questioned that. He was not, in fact, a doctor. He dropped the “Heil” from his name for, uh, obvious reasons.
In the 1940s, Bronner created a kind of philosophical manifesto. A lot of writing about Bronner talks about his ideologies and religious beliefs, but it’s kind of impossible to talk about this soap crusader without mentioning the unfathomable history of trauma in his past. Both of his parents — from whom he was estranged — were murdered during the Holocaust. He was in a new county, alone, facing discrimination for his accent and his name and his faith. This dude must have felt profoundly lonesome. Which kind of explains why his writings about the collective nature of humanity were so….thorough.
Bronner’s Moral ABC — the contents of the bottle label, which was published back in 2015 in a very cute little book — was his attempt at “trying at once unite the whole human race in one God faith,” he said in an archival interview.
The messaging actually sounds pretty solid by today’s standards. Espousing collective wellbeing, empathy, and caring (the label on the bottle encourages people to “be generous, fair & loving to Spaceship Earth and all its inhabitants. For we’re ALL-ONE OR NONE! ALL-ONE!”) as well as sustainability, the Moral ABC would fit right in on any Neo-hippie Instagram page. But in 1946, that message — or maybe the messenger — led Bronner to be institutionalized in the Elgin State Insane Asylum.
After an incident in which Bronner created a disturbance in the dean's office at the University of Chicago, he was jailed. A week later, his sister signed the necessary papers, and he was taken to Elgin State Mental Hospital…
…Emanuel was in Elgin for six months. On his third try, he escaped. He had no money except for $20 stolen from a purse, but he found a classified ad seeking a companion to share the drive to Los Angeles. That would be good, he thought. No one knew him there. By the time they got to Las Vegas, Bronner figured he and his companion had become friendly enough that he could reveal the fact that he was an escaped mental patient.
As Bronner watched the car drive off, he wondered if the roulette wheel at a nearby casino might turn what was left of the $20 into enough cash to get to Los Angeles. He was lucky, got to L.A., spent his nights sleeping on the roof of a YMCA and his days fighting forest fires for pay. Thus Dr. Bronner -- the doctorate was self-awarded in honor of his deep knowledge of soapmaking -- began his climb to become what later media reports would often term him, the Pope of Soap.
Yup. He spent six months in the bin (instead of doing more jail time) and tried to escape three times. What a life!
Asylum v. Lockup: An old story
Of his time in Elgin, he has stated that “he was made to sleep on a bare concrete floor and was tortured,” by more than 20 electro-shock treatments, according to a 1987 LA Times article. Bronner would go on to blame the shock treatments he received at Elgin on his blindness and other issues throughout his pretty long life (he lived to be 89). He ultimately died of Parkinson’s and, as far as I can tell, never sought any other treatment for any kind of mental illness. He wasn’t diagnosed with anything in the institution. And, as a very prolific activist, one must assume that if that he was struggling with depression or mania or anything of that nature, it would have been part of his philosophy.
So was Bronner actually, like, a person with any sort of mental disorder? Or did he just end up in the ‘bin because it was that or the slammer?
This is actually a pretty common question when looking at the institutionalized people. Many, many folks have wound up in an asylum because it was viewed as a viable alternative to incarceration. Unfortunately, as we’ve discussed previously in this lil newsletter, that led to the overcrowding of many of these state hospitals, cramming them full of people who didn’t really need to receive that kind of care.
The institutionalization of Emanuel Bronner, then, seems pretty key to the company’s mission, because it’s indicative of several larger issues.
Later on, the Dr. Bronner’s company would become very active in alternative treatments to things like the electro-shock that their patriarch experienced. They’ve actively campaigned for legalization of psilocybin mushrooms and MDMD as potential treatments. They’re also very invested in decriminalization of cannabis, dismantling the carceral state (like the kind that led to Emanuel becoming institutionalized), which speaks directly to the founder’s experience. They even provide psychedelic therapy to their employees.
BUT that doesn’t mean that Dr. B didn’t have a.) some kind of mental health struggles, if only from the massive amount of trauma in his life and b.) a truly terrible time in the hospital.
Either way, I’m glad he busted out. I’m glad he created a soap empire that now pays its employees good wages and takes part in constructive capitalism. Way to go, Dr. B!