Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox (Sara Lamm, 2006) I've used Dr. Bronner's pure castile peppermint soap for more than ten years.  It's cleansing, it tingles, and it smells nice.  It helps wake one up in the morning, along with the five cups of coffee, the energy drink, and the oatmeal with fruit (and the viewing of errors once your daily review is posted).

But, you can't use it without a more-than-casual look at the label.  Where most soap companies might have directions, or ingredients, or, even warnings—such as, don't drink this stuff, you idiot—Dr. Bronner's soap bottle is surrounded by a daunting label of small type that contains a rambling, repetitive, almost encyclopedic treatise espousing a unified God theory, and "the Moral A-B-C's."  Every inch of the label is utilized, even the margins, completely ignoring the "white space" rule or easy scanning strategies, and invoking Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, Thomas Paine, Rudyard Kipling, Albert Einstein, Rabbi Hillel, even Carl Sagan in its scatter-shot "All-One" philosophy.

Two things come to mind: his heart's in the right place, though his mind, not so sure; and...should I be using this stuff?

Hey, the soap's great.  It's completely natural, organic, non-synthetic, "vegan," and "Fair-Trade."  I use it every day, and I've stopped reading the label—there's no warning for eye-strain, only from squirting it into your orbs, even by accident.  Plus, it's in most health-food stores...most stores, in fact, and these things get tested.  Plus, I like it.

But, the label had me curious.  I'd done some research, which was inconclusive, but the news that a documentary, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox, was circulating around the movie-drain allowed me to pop two soap bubbles with one poke.  I put in a request at Netflix...they'd never heard of it.  That's okay.  They'd never heard of Chaplin, either.  A year later, it was available, and when it came in the queue, I snapped it up.

And what a tale it is: Bronner, a German Jew and fifth generation soap-maker, whose family died in the Nazi concentration camps emigrated, made it over the U.S. and established the first of four soap-making companies, and began developing his personal philosophy.  Married four times, institutionalized for a time (in the 50's, he got very loud, ranting at a lecture, and when you hear it in a German accent...well, people get nervous...especially during the 50's), escaping and hiding out in California, where another soap-making venture (out of his apartment!) caught on, and became huge with the counter-culture in the 1960's, who were rather accepting of the "out-there" (as long as you listened to their crazy ideas, too).

He had three kids, two of whom died before him, the youngest tours the country delivering lectures about his father,* and promoting the soap, doing out-reach, and checking outlets.  Nice guy, living what he learned from his father about "never judging people," but, in marked contrast, he actually listens as much as he talks (there's an interesting interview with the doctor's last wife, where Bronner is in the background, still babbling away—blind as a bat—and unaware that the camera is no longer on him).  Bronner's other son, built up the soap business, standardized the processing, bottling and distribution, doing it cheaply and in a non-polluting way—no pumps, just gravity—and was utterly disdainful of his dad's "All-One" jazz: for one, it scared off customers, and for two, Bronner would leave the kids for months at a time on his "lecture circuit," the kids often becoming subject to orphanages and foster-homes.   Now, the grandsons run the business efficiently, and with even more focus on making the company as green and fair as possible (their salaries are capped, so no one makes more than five times what the lowliest worker makes, and donating a whopping 70% of their net profits to charity).   And they make a LOT of money, bemused by the reputation of their grandfather/creator, who had lots of crazy ideas, one of which worked like gang-busters.

Not unlike Henry Ford.

Lamm's documentary is quirky, gossipy, empathetic, but not afraid to exploit the "woo-woo" side of the story.  She also has access to a lot of previously filmed material that gives context to the overall story, that is just weird enough to be an American success story.

Dr. Emmanual Bronner, his soap, and the Universe

* He has a great line in his lectures: "Eccentric geniuses cannot be good fathers...At dinner, he'd be (doing his work), and we'd say, "Dad, we're waiting," and he'd say, "What's more important: eating or uniting Spaceship Earth?"...and, well, he's got you there...."

the reply, of course, is: "Hey, Mr. 'Health,' starving your kids is gonna look GREAT in the papers..."


John Thomas "Kooz" Kuczmarski said...

I use this as my ONLY bodywash/shampoo. part of my travel system (and everywhere) the soap IS fantastic. REminds me of campsuds peppermint I had in mexico jungle. I rip off the lable. Sagan, Einstein, and Thomas-Paine are fine, but I'm a radical atheist, so the religious stuff is toxic. But that bottle of soap without the label (and a few mindful Thomas paine quotes) lasts for ever. It's definitely an apex-productivity item. it's safe and healthy to use, but agreeably better without the label

John Thomas "Kooz" Kuczmarski said...

although the autobio of bronner doesnt' interest me, it was an interesting cliffnotes account you did and I didn't know that about 5th-gen soap-maker german jew. whattaya know.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Yeah, the soap is terrific and I have no problems supporting the grand-kids, who, if anything, are walking the talk, rather than abandoning his kids to go on a rambling (talk and walk) lecture circuit. Yeah...toss the label...the kids won't because it's "legacy"...use the soap and don't let the rest of it "burst your bubble."