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The Doctor Is . . . Everywhere!

By Roger Piantadosi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 1999; Page E04

There are lathers and, by God, there are lathers.

More than once on the road, I have thought of this small bottle of concentrated peppermint soap as a godsend--since it works just as well for bathing as for shaving, washing clothes (or dishes, or vegetables) and even repelling bugs and drying up athlete's foot.

Thanking God, of course, is just what soapmaker Emanuel Bronner would've wanted me to do.

If you doubt this, you haven't seen the labels of every packed-by-hand bottle of Dr. Bronner's Peppermint 18-in-1 Pure-Castile Soap, a staple of the tread-lightly-on-Mother-Earth crowd and a fixture on shelves of travel and health food stores. Each label is itself packed (by Bronner's own hand, from the early '50s until his death at age 89 in 1997) with up to 3,000 printed words. In prose that generally runs on until it reaches an exclamation point or a verse of Bronner's fondest mantra ("We're All-One or None!"), they outline his prescriptions for cleanliness as well as that thing they say is next to cleanliness.

Directions to godliness intermingle with directions for use. Some are easy to distinguish ("Don't Drink Soap! Keep Out of Eye! Dilute! Dilute! OK!"), while others begin in the tub and veer sharply Milky Way-ward: "Enjoy sink body rub to stimulate body mind-soul-spirit and teach Hillel's Essene Moral ABC uniting all free in the African Shepherd Israel's great All-One-God-Faith!" And some, including these lines just below where it says Dr. Bronner's uses no synthetic oils or detergents, are 100-percent pure Emanuel Bronner, the German immigrant who'd merged his Jewish faith with Christian, Moslem, ancient Greek and other teachings, and merely used soap as a vehicle, his son says, to spread the word across Spaceship Earth: "We're all Brothers & Sisters because One, ever-loving, Eternal Father is our only God, & All-One-God-Faith reunites God's legion!"

All-One-God-Faith--Bronner's raison d'etre and until recently the name of his Escondido, Calif., company--was once a thorn in the sides of sons Ralph and James Bronner, who spent their early years estranged from their eccentric father (who learned soapmaking from his family but whose doctorate was self-awarded). James Bronner's son and widow, Trudy, now run the company, and Ralph, a retired English teacher who long ago settled in Wisconsin, is its public voice. The family-owned, profit-sharing company now sells about 2 million bottles a year.

"And that's with no catalogue, no salesmen, no brochure, no advertising, ever," says Ralph Bronner. "He was one of the last of the eccentric businessmen in America, and I was the cocky son out of college who told him to change the name to 'Mint Glow,' and that no one was going to buy his soap or his philosophy. But he was right, I was wrong; the soap had to be good to do what it's done . . . "

Ralph Bronner loves to recite customers' letters. They range from the guy who says he was saved from suicide when he read the label, to one who wrote to say that "after I shower and get dressed it feels like someone put a York Peppermint Patty in my underwear."

The soap is made the way soap's been made for millenniums. The peppermint comes from, you know, real plants. Likewise the eucalyptus, lavender and almond soaps (listed roughly in order of underwear-tingling qualities). Park rangers and wilderness guides tend to recommend them, thus furthering a word-of-mouth campaign started by California hippies in the '60s. A four-ounce, travel-size bottle is about $2. Ralph Bronner says the family will not sell out to a big conglomerate, or change the labels except to conform to FDA requirements.

I'd heard that you could brush your teeth with it. If true God-realization is indeed painful, I'm on the right path. Blecchh.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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