“Counterculture” is not word that can be used to describe my childhood milieu and most retail experiences during my formative years took place in the aisles of Safeway, not health food stores (not that there were too many around in the 1980s in suburban Washington State). Thus, I didn’t lay eyes on a Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps product until I was in my early 20s. My reaction when I first spotted a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Classic Liquid Soap — complete with labeling littered with esoteric text, like a new age printing press threw up all over a bottle — was not atypical: What in the Sam Hill is this?

Years later, I become more familiar with the Dr. Bronner’s brand but the man behind the line of castile soaps, Dr. Bronner himself, remained an enigma. Was Dr. Bronner even a real person? I looked into his “story” and wasn't entirely shocked to find he was just as curious as his product’s packaging. His life was an intriguing one — filled with tragedy, triumph, and far-out environmentalism — that the Dr. Bronner’s website chronicles in an extensive historical timeline.

Here’s a truncated version: Emmanuel (Emil) Heilbronner was born into a Jewish soapmaking dynasty in Germany in 1908. Young Emil clashed with his family due in part to his eccentric personality and strong Zionist beliefs so in 1929 he emigrated to America, dropped the “heil” and added “Dr.” to his name, and become a consultant in the soap and specialty chemicals industry. During World War II, Bronner’s parents were killed in the Holocaust and Dr. Bronner embarked on a radical crusade, “Dr. Bronner’s Peace Plan,” to promote world peace and heal "spaceship earth." Bronner’s views landed him in an insane asylum where he received shock treatment.

Bronner escaped the mental hospital, moved to Southern California where he “fit right in,” and started Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps in 1948. During the following years, Bronner’s castile soap business took a back seat to his continued out-there activism that included promoting planetariums as houses of worship. He decided to drive his philosophies home by printing his doctrine, “the Moral ABCs”, in tiny script directly on the labeling of his now-iconic Liquid Peppermint Soap. The 1960s and 70s were kind to Dr. Bronner as America's youth (AKA hippies) embraced his earth-friendly, multipurpose product (and left-field philosophies) and used it for everything “from washing their VW vans, to cleaning their bell-bottoms, to washing themselves by the nearby lake.”

The brand continued to grow and expand in the 1980s and became a staple in health foods stores. Dr. Bronner died in 1997 but the company remained in the family and in the following years continued to evolve and establish itself as a leading “green” brand by becoming USDA certified organic in 2003, using 100 percent post-consumer plastic bottles, advocating the use of industrial hemp, and being certified as a fair trade company in 2007. In 2008, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps celebrated its 60th anniversary.

So now you know.

Although it's been in just the last couple of decades that Dr. Bronner’s has been involved in the organics movement and released a slew of other products, the company has been eco-oriented from the very beginning. Bronner’s oldest and most popular product line, the Classic Liquid Soaps, are castile soaps meaning that they’re vegetable-based (versus tallow-based), biodegradable, and sans detergents or synthetic foaming agents. And, most notably, Dr. Bronner’s Classic Liquid Soaps are extremely versatile with “18-in-1 uses” recommended right on the mystifying label: a single bottle of castile soap can replace your soap in the shower, your shampoo, your laundry detergent, your household cleaners, and even your toothpaste. Dr. Bronner's liquid soaps continue to be popular with low-impact campers and hikers. The company also makes a dedicated non-soap, nontoxic household cleaner called Sal Suds

Although I'm fascinating by the wild life and times of Dr. B, I’m not a Dr. Bronner’s guy myself. Do you use Dr. Bronner’s products — the liquid soaps or any other balms, lotions, and potions — and if so, when did you start using them? Do you follow the Dr. Bronner’s various activism endeavors or do you just enjoy the products? And, most importantly, have you taken the time out to read the entire label on a bottle of Classic Liquid Soap?

For more “Back to Basics” products for the home, see my previous posts on 20 Mule Team Borax and Bon Ami Cleaning Powder

Photos: Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps 

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Back to basics: Dr. Bronner's Classic Liquid Soaps
Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, the health food store staple with confounding labeling, has been a green home fixture for over 60 years.