Kind of Obsessed

My Favorite Soap Has a Super-Weird Backstory


“Absolute cleanliness is Godliness!” my soap bottle proselytizes each time I enter the shower. “ALL-ONE OR NONE! ALL-ONE!”

Our grooming habits are our own. Mine didn’t fully develop until a point in high school that those close to me still might call “unforgivably recent.” Before that, a quick dip in the swimming hole near my house might suffice, or even a midnight dunk in the neighboring inn’s private pool. They evolved slowly. Overuse of shampoo was bad, I heard, so I made a point to use it no more than twice a week. The bars of Irish Spring that my dad purchased in bulk from Sam’s Club seemed functional, so I pilfered them.

Shortly after this period, I put off college in favor of spending three months in the backcountry of New Zealand, bathing without soap or shampoo in rain and rivers, and inadvertently discovered what some call the “no-poo” method of hair washing. The idea is that shampoo strips the hair of its oils and the scalp compensates by making more of it. Stop using shampoo, and those oils will return to their natural state of equilibrium and self-clean.

This was not, I learned, a sustainable method to live by upon returning home (at least not for me). I retreated to my generics.

Just weeks later, a friend — let’s call him Jamie — introduced me to Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure-Castile Soap. Jamie was a neo-hippy; a lover of nature, jam bands and marijuana; a free-willed busboy with a big van. (He was also I might add, a solid student and a fantastic soccer player and skier.) I’ll never forget the sight of him standing waist-deep in the middle of a pond that extended no farther than four feet at its maximum depth, scrubbing himself while thousands of others floated around and stood on the shore nearby — this was at a music festival.

I think Dr. Bronner would’ve approved. The soap is meant to be used everywhere — it’s for the hair, the face, the body, clothing, dishes, mopping the floor; whatever. It’s also made with Fair Trade and organic ingredients, doesn’t contain any detergents and is 100% biodegradable. The flavor I regularly stock in my home, peppermint, leaves a lingering cooling sensation that’s pleasantly refreshing, especially when lathered into the scalp.

I was doing just that one day when I happened to catch a glimpse of the bottle’s text-heavy label: “Stimulate body-mind-spirit.” Okay, sure, it does that. I rinsed the suds off my face and picked it up off the shelf for a closer look. Exclamation points abound throughout. “ALL-ONE!” “Listen Children Eternal Father Eternally One!” “Only if constructive-selfish I work hard perfecting first me, like every arctic owl-penguin-pilot-cat-swallow-beaver-bee, can I teach The Moral ABC.”

It doesn’t all make sense, but everything about the soap seems aimed at good; aiding the environment, helping others, teaching, making. And yet on first impression, it did seem a tad culty. I’m not one to abandon a product I love over the perceived chance of conspiracy though — good thing we have the Internet. Emanuel Heilbronner, born in Germany in 1908, received his Soapmaking Master certificate from the guild system there and entered the family trade. His strong views, which were influenced by Zionism, caused a rift between him and his family, so he set out for the United States. Once there, he acted as a consultant to soap manufacturers while back home the Nazis destroyed his family’s business and sent them to Auschwitz. Emanuel Heilbronner became the self-stylized Dr. Bronner around this time and growing more impassioned in his teachings, was institutionalized at Elgin State Insane Asylum by his very own sister.

It’d be tragedy on a Shakespearean level if he hadn’t escaped and hoofed it all the way to California, where he began making his peppermint soap until his eventual death in 1997. Dr. Bronner’s wife and sons joined the business before that, as did his grandsons afterward, and together the family have helped translate the kooky panderings on the bottle into real good through charitable donations and advocacy (plus the company has expanded the line of soaps into different scents and forms, including bar soap, which I also love).

But it does percolate back to that label, which carries his purportedly “insane” ideas about achieving world peace, which made it very appealing to real hippies in the sixties and seventies, which made it attractive and interesting to would-be hippies like Jamie, and here I am. So hell yes I’m going to use that soap because even if it wasn’t at its core the most philanthropic bottle of bubbles I’ve ever come across, it’s still just good soap. I’ve taken it with me into the wilds of Patagonia to use while backpacking, and at home, I use it to clean bacon grease from my stovetop.

As a final note, I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the label: “…teach: A fire, a mist, a planet, a crystal, a cell, a jellyfish, a dinosaur, caves where cavemen dwell! Then a sense for work-love-song-art-play-law-beauty, a face turned up from the sod!”

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