Tracing the History and Accomplishments of Dr. Bronner’s
The first “Certificate of Soap-Manufacture” is issued to Emmanuel Heilbronner. The manufacturing of soaps begins in the basement of the Heilbronner home in the Jewish quarter of Laupheim, Germany. The family also manufactures candles for the Jewish Sabbath.
The Heilbronners innovate the first liquid castile soap and supply public washrooms across Germany.
A much larger factory in Heilbronn, Germany opens. Bar soaps are sold across Germany under the “Madaform” brand. The three sons of Emanuel Heilbronner, including the youngest, Berthold, are running the family soap business.
Emanuel (Emil) Heilbronner is born to Berthold and Franciscka. Younger sisters Luise and Lotte are born two and ten years later, respectively.
Emil is apprenticed to another Jewish soapmaking family in southern Germany, according to the tradition of the time. He subsequently attends the guild system trade school and receives his Soapmaking Master certificate. He then attends university and receives a degree in chemistry.
Emil's powerful personality, Zionist ideals and ideas for more modern soapmaking lead to repeated clashes with his father and uncles. He emigrates to the U.S.
Emil works as a consultant to various U.S. soap and chemical specialty manufacturers, primarily in factory design and product development. He drops “Heil” from his last name with the rise of Hitler in Germany. He meets and marries his first wife Paula, a Catholic hotel maid.
Emil and Paula bear a daughter and two sons, Ellen (1934), Ralph (1936) and Jim (1938).
Lotte, as part of the Zionist movement, emigrates to then Palestine and joins the Ein Gev kibbutz, located on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee by the Golan Heights.
[Lotte Reches, Dr. Bronner's younger sister, was born in 1916 and passed away on March 26, 2009. Lotte was an amazing woman, gentle and kind but also strong and sharp-witted. We're grateful for her love and for inspiring us with her life, connecting us to our larger family and history. Her children and grandchildren live throughout Israel today.]
Video: Lotte Reches talks about Bronner family soapmaking and more. Interview filmed in 2007 in Haifa, Israel. Click here to view the video.
Emil's sisters unsuccessfully attempt to persuade their parents to leave Germany for the U.S. during a family vacation in Switzerland.
Luise emigrates to the U.S., getting out of Germany just before the Nazis close the borders to Jewish emigration. She first obtains a degree in chemistry and works in industry, then she returns to school for a PhD and becomes a professor of German at UMass Boston. (Luise passed away in 1998.)
The Nazis nationalize the family soap factory in Heilbronn. Emil's parents Berthold and Franciscka are deported to and eventually murdered in the death camps of Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt, respectively.
Emil's wife Paula becomes sick and is hospitalized, passing away in 1944.
Emil adopts honorific “Dr.” in deference to his university degree, but never actually gets a doctorate. However, with his intensity, immense scientific knowledge and thick German accent, no one would ever challenge him about it. Dr. Bronner begins an urgent mission to convince Roosevelt, Eisenhower and other U.S. leaders, as well as the general public, about his vision for world peace across ethnic and faith traditions, and about the dangers of Communism alongside Fascism. So devoted is he to this mission that he leaves his children to be raised in various foster homes.
Fred Walker is (willingly) crucified for “Dr. Bronner’s Peace Plan” on a Chicago bridge; Dr. Bronner had no direct involvement. In part due to his increasing notoriety, Dr. Bronner is arrested while speaking without a permit at the University of Chicago and is institutionalized in the Elgin State insane asylum for vehemently espousing his views. He undergoes shock treatments, thought to be a miracle cure at the time, which he blames for his subsequent declining eyesight and blindness in the 1960s. He escapes months later and travels to Los Angeles, California where he is fond of saying he fits right in.
Dr. Bronner begins manufacturing our famous liquid Peppermint soap and health food seasonings. The exact beginning date of our company is a bit unclear, but we surmise that Dr. Bronner tied our company’s start to Israel’s founding.
Dr. Bronner lectures primarily in Pershing Square in Los Angeles, a hot-bed of activism of all stripes. He sees the need for the world to unite before it destroys itself, and he exhorts all people to unite as one and to respect each other and the environment, and he encourages all religions to recognize their universal similarities inspired by the same divine source. Dr. Bronner sees planetariums as being the “All-One!” temples of the future, where humanity can realize how vanishingly trivial their differences are on Spaceship Earth within the celestial majesty of Creation.
On the side, he sells his Peppermint soap. He soon realizes that many people are taking the soap and leaving without listening to him speak. In response, Dr. Bronner begins to print his philosophy in dense, tiny script on the labels of each soap bottle.
In the meantime, sons Jim and Ralph periodically help with the business. Ralph works more with the labels and messages, and Jim works with the actual production. Ralph becomes a school teacher in Wisconsin, and Jim spends eight years in the Navy.
Young people, primarily members of the counterculture, come to love the soap with which they can do everything from washing their VW vans, to cleaning their bell-bottoms, to washing themselves in the nearby lake. They also groove on the label's call to peace and the fact that Dr. Bronner is a real person, not some corporate mascot. Word-of-mouth soon makes Dr. Bronner's the iconic soap of that era.
Dr. Bronner moves the bottling and shipping plant to Escondido, California (North County, San Diego) in the 60s. He meets and marries Gladys, his wife until he dies. Jim is now overseeing operations in the Los Angeles facility full-time, and he becomes the Vice President of R&D and Production.
Dr. Bronner's soaps spread into every health food store in the U.S. and then into the mainstream as well, winning over fans from all walks of life. Ralph continues to work with Dr. Bronner on refining the message on the bottles. Jim launches his own chemical consulting company, Bronner Chemical and Technical Consulting, inventing, among other things, a foam concentrate still used in fighting forest and structure fires throughout the U.S. today. Jim’s son, David Bronner, works with the company during high school and college summers.
Click here to see Dr. Bronner jamming with the “All-One!” vision.
Sons Jim and Ralph Bronner and Jim's wife Trudy Bronner assume formal control of the company, due to Dr. Bronner's failing health. Jim becomes full-time President, with Ralph serving as Vice President and company spokesperson and Trudy serving as Treasurer/CFO. A generous health benefit and profit-sharing plan for all company employees is implemented. Ralph travels the country, visiting health food stores, playing guitar and befriending people from all walks of life, particularly those working in “human” – as opposed to “corporate” – charities, which the company supports with donations.
Dr. Bronner, suffering with advanced Parkinson's disease, passes away among family and friends. On the same day, his great-granddaughter Maya Lin-Bronner is born to grandson David Bronner and his wife Kris Lin-Bronner.
Jim Bronner passes away from cancer, having spent a year training his son David in the business, who had also worked extensively with Bronner Chemical and Technical Consulting while growing up. Under Jim's direction and with Trudy's execution, a 1,200-acre parcel of wilderness worth $1.4 million is donated to the San Diego County Boys & Girls Club. The land is resold eight years later by the Club, with the Bronner family's permission, to the Nature Conservancy for $2.5 million in order to service San Diego's poor and disadvantaged youth. (Trudy currently serves as a board member of the Club.)
David, along with mom Trudy and Uncle Ralph, begins running the company. He is only twenty-four years old, but has graduated from Harvard, has lived a short time in Amsterdam, has worked as a mental health counselor for two years, and has become pretty ecological and passionate about many things, as reflected in his vegan diet and hemp advocacy. His middle name being “Emanuel,” he has indeed inherited the “crazy like a fox” Dr. Bronner gene.
David's well-traveled brother, Michael, joins the company to manage operations and purchasing, moving from Japan where he had taught English for three years after graduating from Brown University (where he also spent a semester in Ethiopia). Before long, Michael is coordinating the exportation of Dr. Bronner's soaps to various countries around the world.
After extensive customer trials, hemp seed oil is added as a superfatting ingredient in the soaps, due to overwhelming support for the smoother lather and less drying after feel imparted by its unsurpassed essential fatty acids (EFAs).
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) under the Bush administration attempts to destroy the revitalized U.S. hemp industry, issuing regulations purporting to interpret existing law and declaring hemp illegal, and seizes shipments of hemp seed and oil at the Canadian border. Dr. Bronner's funds and helps coordinate the hemp industry's protracted and ultimately successful litigation with the DEA, which culminates in a clean defeat of the new DEA regulations on February 6, 2004 (Bob Marley's birthday) in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. David joins the Vote Hemp Board of Directors and gets involved with the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) where he currently serves on the Board of Advisors and as Chair of the Food & Oil Committee.
Dr. Bronner's becomes the largest personal care company to be certified under the USDA National Organic Program, with bar and liquid soaps being certified by the highly reputable certifier Oregon Tilth. The company also pioneers 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic bottles for its liquid soaps.
Family executives implement a 5-to-1 compensation cap between the top salaried employee and the lowest-wage warehouse position. The health plan for all employees is upgraded to a no-deductible “Preferred” PPO (vs. an HMO) plan. All profits not needed for business development or debt retirement are dedicated to supporting various progressive causes and charities.
Uncle Ralph begins his off-off-Broadway one-man show, telling various touching and amazing stories about his life, his father and Dr. Bronner's as a company.
The company partners with a Japanese firm to introduce Dr. Bronner's soaps to the Japanese market. By the end of the following year, Dr. Bronner's is the top-selling brand of natural liquid and bar soaps in Japan, just as in North America.
Until now the brand has had only a limited presence internationally. By 2013, however, 20% of the company’s business will be international, with very strong markets in South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, the UK, Israel and Canada, among others.
Dr. Bronner’s acquires Sun Dog Hemp Body Care from long-time friend and activist Sue Kastensen. Sue joins Dr. Bronner’s to help reformulate her famous lip balms, body balms and lotions to USDA National Organic Program standards, which are launched in early 2005.
The USDA, due to lobbying by various interests as well as being understaffed and unable to deal with systemic organic labeling fraud in the personal care industry, attempts to kick certified body care companies out of the National Organic Program which it says is reserved for organic foods. Dr. Bronner's coordinates litigation with the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) against the USDA in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. The USDA has a change of heart and issues a formal policy statement explicitly affirming that non-food products like personal care can continue to be certified under the National Organic Program, as long as they abide by the same rigorous standards as organic foods.
Dr. Bronner's begins a comprehensive project to source all major raw materials, including organic coconut, palm, olive and hemp oils, from certified Fair Trade sources. Large investments are made in setting up a Fair Trade coconut oil project called “Serendipol” in post-tsunami Sri Lanka. In partnership with the NGO Fearless Planet, organic sustainable palm oil is sourced on Fair Trade terms from farmers and a women-owned mill in Ghana. For the olive oil, the company coordinates and funds Fair Trade and organic certification for the Canaan Fair Trade project in the West Bank, as well as for Jewish and Arab-Israeli producers in Israel. Hemp oil comes from the Canadian supplier Farmer Direct and is certified as “fairDeal,” a North American version of Fair Trade.
Dr. Bronner’s is formally certified as a Fair Trade company by the respected Swiss certifier IMO who also certified all the individual projects that supply the raw materials for the soaps.
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox, an independent documentary film that was not financed by the Bronner family or Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps in any way, is released. The family enjoys sharing the film with longtime customers because it answers questions they might have about the company and its products.
The film features footage of Dr. Bronner, his fourth wife Gladys Bronner, late son Jim Bronner and the late Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers, which was shot, directed and produced by Stewart Nelsen in the early 1980s. Current footage was shot by Sara Lamm (who also wrote and directed the film) and Andrew Nagata and features family members who run the company today.
To play the trailer, click here.
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps celebrates its 60th anniversary as a company, and its 150th year of making soap in the family for over five generations, with a new line of products certified organic to USDA National Organic Program standards. The same year, Dr. Bronner’s expands distribution into Israel, fulfilling a dream that Dr. Bronner had ever since he created the company.
In order to expand further into the birthplace of Dr. Bronner himself, a sister-company, Dr. Bronner’s Germany (DBG), is created in Dusseldorf. Soon DBG begins distributing all throughout the European continent.
Dr. Bronner’s co-brands with its Fair Trade coconut supplier from Sri Lanka (Serendipol) to launch White Kernel and Whole Kernel Fair Trade Coconut Oils into food aisles across the country. In less than three years, the product line accounts for 10% of total company sales.
2010 to 2013
In October of 2010, Dr. Bronner’s president David Bronner, joined by leading hemp entrepreneurs and organic farmers, is arrested outside of the DEA’s headquarters in Washington, DC for planting hemp seeds and demanding that American farmers be allowed to farm hemp once again. In June of 2012, David is arrested again for harvesting hemp plants in a cage in front of the White House, further highlighting the Obama administration’s absurd and ongoing prohibition of this non-drug, agricultural crop.
In September of 2013, Dr. Bronner’s staff celebrates with American farmer Ryan Loflin, as he harvests the first American commercial hemp crop in over sixty years. During this period, Dr. Bronner’s also helps coordinate Hemp History Week, the largest grassroots marketing and public education campaign to bring hemp farming back to the U.S., currently held at over 800 retail and community locations each June.
2012 to 2013
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps partners with a coalition of parent, consumer, health and environmental groups to demand that genetically engineered foods be labeled. Chemical companies like Monsanto and Dow engineer food crops to withstand high doses of weed killer, which ends up in our food, water and bodies. Dr. Bronner’s is a primary financial backer of Proposition 37 in California that is narrowly defeated 49% to 51% in 2012.
Continuing to press forward, Dr. Bronner’s coordinates coalition support and financial backing for Initiative 522 in Washington, which loses by a razor-thin margin (49% to 51%) after the opposition spends the largest amount of money on a proposition in Washington state history to defeat it.
Having grown around 1,100% over the past fifteen years, Dr. Bronner’s has completely outgrown its current location and the warehouse it leases. The new facility, coming in 2014, will house the entire operation (aside from regional sales) and will boast the first Dr. Bronner’s Company Store. The new factory will begin offering group tours, too!