All-One Faith! All-One Soap!
Here’s the man behind it all, live from Escondido.
By Chuck Fager – Summer 1976
On March 9, 1945, a man named Fred Walcher got himself crucified. In Chicago, on the framework under an el station, after dark. When the cops found him and pulled him down, bleeding and semi-conscious, he wouldn’t say who had nailed him up there.
“I’m dying for peace,” he gasped. “I’m dying for Dr. Bronner’s Peace Plan.”
Dr. Who? And his what?
The police got the full name out of Walcher: Emil Bronner, a chemist. The cops found Dr. Bronner later that night, making soap at the factory where he was research director.
“Are you Bronner?” they demanded.
He admitted it.
“Do you have a peace plan?”
He said he did.
“Come with us.”
The crucifixion, Bronner said later, was front-page news in the Chicago papers. When the reporters and photographers crowded into Walcher’s hospital room flashbulbs popping and pens scratching, Bronner was there too, with plenty of copies of his peace plan. Walcher still declined to name his assailants; the plan, he insisted, was the thing. It was his reluctance to finger anybody, though, that was news; the peace plan got only passing mention, Bronner recalls, in the Tribune, and was not mentioned at all anywhere else.
That was thirty years ago. Today, [in 1976] people are still dying for a peace plan, and at age 70 Dr. Emil Bronner is still making soap and trying to get someone to pay attention to his ideas. Nowadays, though, the people who usually come to him are not cops but more like hippies, longhaired pilgrims left over from the sixties, or at least alumni of that crazy decade of agitation and celebration of the bizarre.
One of these visitors was me. I got interested in Dr. Bronner, his soap and his message the same way most people do: A friend has a bottle of the stuff in her shower stall. Made with pure peppermint oil, the stuff smelled good, made your skin tingle, and the label was a trip: 1700 words of copy appear on the quart size label, in addition to a list of ten of the 18 ways he says you can use the stuff. (Toothpaste? Mouthwash? Douche? I don’t know about the latter, but the others are for real-tastes like soap, though.)
Your Humble Correspondent, Doing Field Research
“Thank God,” reads part of the label message, “we ascend up from dust, trained-brave, evolving united-guided by full truth, God’s law, the Moral ABC Hillel taught Jesus to unite all free!”
And what is this Moral ABC? The label goes on: “1st perfect thyself! 2nd work hard! 3rd Win Victory, teach All-One 4 billion & overnight we’re all free, All-One! For once the Moral ABC united the whole human race, East, West, Border, breed & birth, unites all of God’s spaceship Earth in All-One-God-Faith; then & only then no matter how rough the trip, how high the toll, you are the captain of the ship, you are the master of the soul! Win Victory!”
This intrigued me, even if I couldn’t manage to read the whole label in one gulp. My instincts were also stimulated. There’s a story in this stuff and the man who makes it, I figured; maybe more than a story.
I was right, though it took me awhile to get to it. When I finally found Dr. Bronner, it was a hot Friday night and he was sitting on the porch of the Women’s Club Building in Escondido, northeast of San Diego. Surrounded by a circle of friends, employees, and admirers, he had just announced virtual completion of the “final revision” of his soap label for the quart bottle.
“This is a statement that’s going to shake this earth,” he declared. “Now I want you to help me in finalizing a few of these lines. Jenny, read me the part we were talking about.”
A woman on his right, a part time secretary, looked down at a sheet of paper and began to recite. Dr. Bronner leaned in her direction. He was wearing a white laboratory coat and brown corduroy pants. His skin was dark brown, well-cured by several thousand baths in the lambent California sun. He is all but blind, and wears dark glasses covered with pinprick lenses. Square hands, cupped under a pointed chin, seemed too large for his thin arms.
He raised an angular finger to point out the problematic phrase. “Should I take ‘lightning-like’ from where it is and place it farther along?” (By this he meant replacing the word “instantly” in the phrase “instantly united the human race” with “lightning-like.”) A few suggestions were offered, but before the issue was resolved, Bronner moved on to another difficult passage: “A human being grants friend and enemy free speech or that being is not yet human.” My pen could not keep up with his ruminations about possible variant readings.
Every Friday night, the All-One-Faith-In-One-God-State-Universal-Life-Church meets thus at the Escondido Women’s Club. This evening about 10 people attended, of whom several were employees and two, myself and a friend, reporters. The turnout, we found, was not usually that many. We also learned that Dr. Bronner had announced the “final” label revision not once but many times before.
For two hours he lectured, speaking nonstop about a jumble of topics: Richard Nixon was the most outrageous president we ever had; the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago were a production of the Communists, in which the rioters provoked the police into retaliation; after World War II, Communist assassins murdered 66 prominent Americans who were opposed to their plans of conquest. He also mentioned some new uses for his peppermint soap that had recently been discovered: He put it on a night or two earlier when mosquitos were bothering him, and they stayed away; someone also had told him it relieved poison-ivy and poison-oak symptoms.
After the meeting, Dr. Bronner invited us to spend the night at his place, and we followed him home, driving out a series of winding roads to Panorama Crest, where the street sign was topped with a larger plaque directing visitors to the “All-One-Faith-In-One-God-State, Inc.” At the corner, Dr. Bronner hopped out of the station wagon, hung onto the door handle with one hand, and jogged the rest of the way to his house, expertly skimming over the potholes with an assurance that, for a blind man, must have come from long familiarity.
Down the hill from his home, in a plant that is a collection of steel storage sheds around an old stucco ranch house, his soap is bottled and shipped out, as is his instant raw vegetable soup, balanced seasoning, mineral salt and a dozen other health-food products.
“Let me show you how I bathe with the soap,” he insisted when we got inside the house. It was almost midnight, everyone else was asleep, but he led us into a small bathroom, peeled off his shirt and turned on the hot water in the sink. “This saves water as well as giving your body a good massage and cleaning,” he said, squirting a dab of soap into the sink and swishing it around. “You just put in about a quarter ounce, not enough to make it sudsy.”
He dipped a towel into the hot, soapy water, wrung it out, then covered his face with the damp, steaming cloth. Then he wet and wrung it again, massaged his hair, arms, and torso, “always moving toward the heart. Always toward the heart.” And always he was talking, talking. He kept us up for two more hours that night.
How did the different fragments of his life fit together? How did he come to be soapmaker and Essene Rabbi, for openers? Dr. Bronner was undismayed by the apparent discontinuity. In fact, the next morning when we sat down in his living room, he insisted that there were not merely two Dr. Bronners but four. He started enumerating and describing them, each sketch fading into a homily that was a near exact duplication of something from one of his labels or leaflets. By the time we had finished late that afternoon, we had talked not about four Dr. Bronners, but eight, and had only come as far as 1941 in his history.
One of the most recent of these identities is among the most paradoxical: Bronner the counterculture celebrity. His son Jim, who oversees the manufacture of the soap at a plant in Los Angeles, described to me how he and his brother Ralph, who now lives in Milwaukee, tried in the early sixties to come up with a new design for the soap label, something snappy and catchy, something that could get the stuff moving. “We were making about ten gallons of soap a week in 1961,” Jim recalled.
In 1968, though, his father negotiated a deal to give away 100,000 bottles of the soap in Israel, as a way of introducing it to the Holy Land. In anticipation of that venture, Dr. Bronner redesigned the label, changing the colors from gold and black to blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag.
The Israel deal fell through. But the new soap label stuck, and soon thereafter the soap began catching on-among, of all people, the hippies of Haight-Ashbury. The actual beginnings are lost to history, but no doubt some longhair picked up a bottle, was turned on by the smell and the “No synthetics! None!” declaration on the label. And if just a little stoned, the long-hair undoubtedly found endless profundity in the “All-One” philosophy of the long lines winding around the plastic container.
Anyway, word-of-mouth advertising being the best, one thing led to another-despite the right-wing philosophy expressed on the label. Moreover, the doctor had a seeming antipathy toward just about all that the counterculture was thought to stand for (Absolute cleanliness is godliness!” insists the quart label. “We raise coward-tax-leech-slave, unless we raise all hard-working, military-trained, united, armed brave!”)
Nevertheless, Jim Bronner told me that for awhile after the soap sales took off in 1968 (he now makes about 150,000 gallons a year), his father frequently had a house full of footloose pilgrims from the Love Generation, whom he harangued and plied with samples. That wave has passed now, but the soap is an established artifact of the culture that generation shaped. Probably a million people use it, and the number is growing. Dr. Bronner says he has never advertised it (son Jim is not so sure, saying that perhaps a few tiny ads were placed in health-food publications some years ago). He has no sales force either.
But what of the previous identities Dr. Bronner told me about? He started with four:
1. Bronner the German Jewish boy, born there in 1908. His father was a wealthy soapmaker, owner of three factories. Soap had been the family business for 60 years. (That’s why the label says “Guaranteed since 1848 by Einstein-Heilbronner,” which was the family’s original name.) He was still a boy when he was baptized into the reality of his homeland’s anti-Semitism. This baptism was literal, with a font full of urine, administered by a gang of gentile youths.
2. Bronner the athlete, involved in German and Jewish physical culture groups, hiking, camping out, worshipping the fully-toned body.
3. Bronner the Zionist and student soapmaker. He says he leaped into the campaign for a Jewish homeland and came into conflict with his domineering father, who wanted no talk of politics in his factories.
4. Bronner the Socialist-Idealist-Soapmaker and Master Chemist. “‘Jewish boys are soft; they can’t work with their hands,’ that’s what they said when I was studying to be a soapmaker,” Bronner muttered. As part of the soapmaker’s final examination, a candidate had to pour soap into an open wooden barrel, then seal it up by hand before the soap could leak out. The officials were sure he could never do it; but Bronner showed them. He practiced and practiced, passed the test, and became heir apparent to his father’s business.
But there were Nazis among the workers in the plants, and even some Communists. It seems that Bronner tangled with both of them and, as a result, with his father. “‘If you talk about politics or religion in my plant again, you can get out!’” he says his father told him. “‘We are here to make soap, not politics!’”
He said there were four Bronners when he began his discourse. But he went on without pausing: Bronner No. 5 was the immigrant to America and successful soapmaker here. This Bronner also became a husband, marrying a woman who was a maid for wealthy German family in Milwaukee. His wife, Laura, was the illegitimate daughter of a nun, who later committed suicide and left her to be adopted. Bronner says Laura was more beautiful than her adopted parents’ daughter and was therefore hated. They had three children.
“That was before Hitler and the hate,” he said, “and I could make her happy then.” It was during this period, in 1935, that he invented the peppermint-oil soap, originally as a deodorizing wash for diapers.
Bronner No. 6 was unemployed and desperate. His employers laid him off in 1941; Bronner believes the layoff owed a lot to anti-Semitism. He found another job in a few days, however, as consultant to a soapmaker who was working for the government war effort. This was Bronner No. 7. He didn’t tell his employer he was Jewish. Bronner became No.8, who soon thereafter became research director for a manufacturer in Chicago, turned decidedly anti-rabbinical after watching some bearded rabbis intoning prayers over an empty mixing tank and pretending to make kosher soap.
From here the story became harder to follow, more disrupted by the memorized soliloquies. Eventually, though, several more Bronners were outlined: Bronner the widower, whose wife became suicidal and finally died in a state hospital near Chicago. Bronner the war victim, whose parents were gassed by the Nazis. Before their deaths, his sister sent him telegrams demanding money with which to buy their release. “But I couldn’t do it,” he said. The last thing he heard from them was a six-word postcard from the concentration camp. It read: “You were right. Your loving father.”
Bronner had by this time developed the early versions of his peace plan. It proposed a United States of the World, with a world congress composed of one representative for each million people. He printed up copies and passed them out at meetings and lectures in Chicago, presumably passing into Fred Walcher’s hands.
After Walcher’s crucifixion, Bronner attempted to publicize the plan at the International Center of the University of Chicago. But he got into trouble when he demanded the chance to address the Center’s public meetings. University authorities were not impressed with this outsider, with his poor English and his peace plan.
One afternoon in March, 1946, he was in the center director’s office, trying to get permission to speak, when two policemen came in, said his car was illegally parked and asked him to come with them. “I told them to wait half an hour,” he recalled. “There I was trying to unite the world with a real peace plan and they wanted me to come to the station with them because my car was parked wrong. Holy man! And when we did go outside I could see that my car was parked fine. It was a setup, a trap.”
So it seemed. Bronner was jailed, and, a week later, with his sister’s signature on the papers, was committed to a state hospital. There, he says, he ended up in solitary confinement, sleeping at night tied to a bare concrete slab. He says he was tortured with shock treatments.
This was another identity, Bronner the concentration-camp inmate. In his mind, psychiatrists and their hospitals are one with Nazis and Communist murderers. In recent years he has bought and given away 60,000 copies of a Reader’s Digest article about how innocent people get put away in mental hospitals for no reason.
He was released once; but when he then tried to get his sister’s attorney disbarred, was soon recommitted. During the second stretch, he escaped three times and was caught twice. The third time, in September, 1947, he managed to flee Illinois for California.
Bronner made the rounds of soap companies in Los Angeles without success. “He was known in the industry as a brilliant chemist,” Jim Bronner told me. “But his Chicago stories had preceded him, and nobody would give him a job.” Times were so bad, Dr. Bronner said, he even slept on the roof of a YMCA building. Eventually he managed to start his own business, making and selling his mineral salt to health food stores. He was making his soap then, too, but it wasn’t moving well. He took over the bottom two floors of a wino hotel for the operation and spent as much time distributing his religious pamphlets and literature as he did working.
He stayed in Los Angeles until 1963, when his business had grown enough to enable him to move to Escondido. “Do you know why I picked Escondido?” he asked. I didn’t know. “Because the biggest avocado packing plant in the world is here, and when you eat one with my mineral salt, avocado is almost perfect nutrition.”
Sure enough, the Calavo avocado plant is right across the street from his own. “I wanted them to work together with us, sell the mineral salt with the avocados right on the supermarket shelves. But they wouldn’t do it, I don’t know why.” Dr. Bronner has often had difficulty getting people to work with him.
In 1962 he visited Germany. On the way, he said, he stopped off in New York City and spent a month holed up in a hotel, telephoning every one of the Big Apple’s 600-plus rabbis, questioning them about Hillel’s Moral ABC and asking to speak to their congregations. He got many different versions of Hillel, but only one kind of response to his request for time: 600-plus refusals that varied only in tone and courtesy.
But while in Germany, he did manage to speak at a temple, to a group of young people who were training to spend time on a kibbutz. When he finished, he said, more than ten of then stood up and shouted, “You are our rabbi, you have taught us much!” That is how Emil Bronner became a rabbi.
Today he has become Bronner the boss, with a successful business and troubles with the Internal Revenue Service to prove it. He is also Bronner the increasingly frustrated old man, desperate to gain an audience for his ideas and largely unable to do so outside his soap labels. Perhaps that is why he revises them so often, even holding up shipment of orders while he throws out thousands of already-printed ones, agonizing over the rewording of the tiny print, then exultantly announcing, as he has time and again, that the new one is the final, ultimate version. By the time this article is published the latest version should be off the presses and being glued onto the first set of bottles.
On leaving Escondido the next day, we were loaded down with free samples of soap, soup and salt, along with stacks of literature (one copy was never enough). But that wasn’t the end of our encounter. Two days after I got home, the phone rang. I picked it up, and a woman’s voice said, “Stand by for Dr. Bronner.” Then he came on, talking as fast as ever: “Chuck, there isn’t much time! I want you to go to Modesto. Find Walcher’s house there. It’s on Hatch Road.”
After Walcher’s crucifixion, Bronner didn’t see him again until he reached Los Angeles, penniless and with few opportunities. Then, miraculously he believes, he ran into Walcher on the street one day. Walcher loaned him $600, just enough to get started with his mineral salt. Walcher later settled in Modesto, worked as a mason and died sometime during the early sixties. Then in January, 1976, in a conversation with a woman from Modesto who had once refused Walcher’s proposal of marriage, Bronner said he realized in a flash that the Chicago crucifixion was not just a fluke.
“Fred Walcher was the Second Coming of Christ!” he thundered over the long-distance wires. “Holy man! The woman I was talking to didn’t believe it. She said, ‘In my Bible, it says that when Jesus returns it will be as a king, and the earth will shake and the clouds will rise to heaven.’
“But that was it! When Fred Walcher was crucified, the earth shook and the clouds rose to Heaven!” (He wasn’t, it turned out, referring to the clangor of the el trains overhead or the smoke from the Windy City’s factories; he meant the atom bomb, which was first detonated in July, 1945, in New Mexico. The interval and distance from Chicago was of no consequence to his interpretation.)
“I want to buy that house,” he shouted. “I want to buy it and make it a shrine for the All-One-God-Faith. Go to Modesto, Chuck! Find it!”
He didn’t wait for me to reply. “And there’s some other things that should go in your article, that are more important than anything about Bronner. I don’t have much time. They murdered so many of the real peace-loving American patriots, Forrestal, Stettinius, Liebman, and who knows, maybe next is Bronner? But there are six of my inventions that need patent protection. Help me get it, Chuck. I don’t want any money from them– it’s all for the church, for mankind.
“There’s the Essene birth controller” (a device employing citrus juice in a suppository which would, he said, lower the pH in a woman’s vagina to the point where conception would be impossible for 24 hours- or, as he put it, “24 orgasms, whichever comes first.”) “And the instant CO2 firebombers for stopping forest fires.” (His design would adapt carbon dioxide fire extinguishers so they could be built into hundreds of mothballed Air Force bombers and used to stop forest fires; in cities he says helicopters could be loaded with tanks of it dispensed with hoses against smaller blazes.) “And two billion windpower generators to charge 96 billion batteries, which can run all the factories and homes in the country.
“Chuck! America has 6% of the world’s people but it used up 35% of the fuel. No wonder we’re hated around the world. Holy Man! With these windpower plants we can run everything and only use 6% of the fuel. Then we can bring peace and unite this world with the Moral ABC!”
The other “inventions” weren’t really his, except for the mineral salt, which he insists contains the right mineral balance to eliminate tooth decay naturally.
And not only is he short on time, he explained, but the world is too. That’s because Halley’s Comet is due back in 1986. Dr. Bronner was convinced that the comet is a spaceship directed by advanced humane (“that’s not ‘human’”, he insisted, spelling the word to make sure I had it right) beings from the area of either Sirius or Alpha Centauri, who are monitoring our planet’s progress toward “Fulltruth” compliance with God’s laws.
Since we have been breaking these laws rampantly and shamelessly, the comet has been coming closer during each pass since 1682. In 1986, or at the latest in 2062 when it returns another time, Bronner is afraid it will collide with our planet and the resulting “supernova” explosion will be a final sign of God’s judgement on us, visible to the whole watching universe.
“I drove myself blind working to get this message out,” Bronner said. “And maybe I talk too much. But when you know what I know, it’s hard to be quiet.” In another moment, he hung up.
It is hard to get Emil Bronner, Essene Rabbi, Soapmaker and Master Chemist, out of my mind. So what if most of his political judgments are patently fantastic, and his personal style is guaranteed to keep people from taking him seriously? So what if he had to wait for a generation of young people who were determined to explore the irrational before he could even sell his excellent soap?
Withal, it seems undeniable, as his son Jim said, “He’s a brilliant man. Many of his ideas have been way ahead of their time, and maybe some still are.” Moreover, his life story is like a prism, refracting the dark colors of the past half century into a searingly bright spectrum of personal experience. If he had been able to communicate better, if he had been listened to before, he might have been able to contribute more to the world than an unusual soap with an even more unusual label. Much more.
No, Dr. Bronner, I haven’t been to Modesto yet. I don’t know if I could find Fred Walcher’s house. But I’d like to go. Holy man! Yes I would.
[Postscript from 2014: I never got to Modesto. And Dr. Bronner died in 1997, aged 89. His soaps are still available. The official Dr. Bronner site is here.]