15 Things You Didn’t Know About Dr. Bronner And His Magic Soap

You've undoubtedly used Dr. Bronner's, the top-selling organic liquid and bar soap brand in North America. But how much do you know about the man behind the company, and the soap he created?

1. EMANUEL BRONNER WAS BORN INTO SOAP.

Bronner was part of the third generation in a family of Jewish master soap makers in Germany. His family is credited with important liquid soap innovations in the country, but because of Bronner’s increasingly sour relationship with his father and uncles, he emigrated to the United States in 1929 for a clean start and to consult for American soap companies—just a few years before the Nazis came to power.

2. HE STARTED HIS LIFE IN THE U.S. LECTURING ABOUT WORLD PEACE.

Bronner spent years spreading word of the life philosophy he called Bronner’s Peace Plan, which would eventually become “the Moral ABC.” The basic idea of his world view? If people stopped focusing on how we are different and instead thought about how we are the same, we would all be better off on this “Spaceship Earth.”

3. HIS MORAL PHILOSOPHY WAS BORN OUT OF TRAGEDY.

In the 1940s, Bronner received word that his parents and extended family who had stayed in Germany had been killed in Nazi death camps. Soon after, his wife fell ill and passed away, leaving Bronner with his two sons and one daughter, all three of whom he put into foster care in order to focus more on refining his speeches. His eldest son, Ralph—who has said he spent time in 15 different orphanages—would eventually join his father on the lecture circuit and continue spreading the Moral ABC after his father’s death in 1997.

4. BRONNER’S SISTER ONCE COMMITTED HIM TO A MENTAL INSTITUTION.

Concerned by the fervor Bronner applied to his lectures and his decision to abandon his children, his sister had him committed to Elgan Mental Health Center outside Chicago, where he received shock treatments, in the mid-1940s. Bronner escaped and fled to California, started calling himself a rabbi, and began mixing up drums of liquid soap using his family’s old recipe.

5. HIS NOW-FAMOUS PEPPERMINT SOAP STARTED AS A GIVEAWAY TO THOSE WHO CAME TO HIS LECTURES.

When he realized that people were coming to his events, taking his soap, and not sticking around for his talks, he started printing his talks on the bottles. Bronner spent the rest of his life refining the 30,000-word creed by which he led his life and which his company still prints on its soap today

6. THE COMPANY NOW BASES ITS BUSINESS PRACTICES OFF BRONNER’S LIFE PHILOSOPHY.

Six principles guide the employees of Dr. Bronner’s: Work hard! Grow!; Do right by customers; Treat employees like family; Be fair to suppliers; Treat the earth like home; Give and give!

7. THE COMPANY FIRST LISTED ITSELF AS A NONPROFIT RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATION.

The IRS disagreed and served Bronner with a notice that he owed them $1.3 million in back taxes, enough to send the company into bankruptcy. It was Bronner’s son Jim who stepped in to save the family soap business.

8. TODAY, BRONNER’S GRANDSON RUNS HIS SOAP EMPIRE.

David, son of Jim (the one who saved the company), takes after his grandfather more than his conservative father (who rejected his dad’s life philosophy and became an industrial chemist). After graduating from Harvard, David took a life-changing trip to Amsterdam and returned to the U.S. with the intention of getting back to the Netherlands to start his own marijuana-growing business as soon as possible. But after spending time reading up on Eastern religions, David said he finally understood what his grandfather had been preaching about all those years. When David’s father passed away in 1998, David took control of the family soap business.

9. THE COMPANY SAYS THERE ARE 18 DIFFERENT WAYS TO USE EVERY BOTTLE OF THEIR CASTILE SOAP.

Despite the company's claims, though, collective internet knowledge and experimentation have found there are around 14 acceptable uses for the product. These include most general cleaning tasks such as face wash, shampoo, shaving cream, and diluting the product for use in cleaning dishes, doing laundry, and washing floors. Somewhat surprisingly, the soap has a reputation for being an effective ant spray. Not surprising is that the internet community has mostly rejected the company’s idea of using the soap to brush your teeth; those who have tried it have found the practice akin to washing their mouth out with soap. Go figure.

10. FOR YEARS, THE SOAPS CONTAINED A SECRET INGREDIENT: CARAMEL COLORING.

After becoming the man on the soapbox, David decided he no longer wanted to hide the ingredient from their customers. Concerned that soap loyalists would see the additional ingredient on the label and assume he had added it himself—or that the change in color from removing it would make it look like he was diluting the recipe—David decided to replace the caramel coloring with hemp oil. The color of the soap changed, but customers also found the new not-secret ingredient improved the feel of the lather.

11. DAVID BELIEVED IN HEMP OIL SO MUCH, HE SUED THE DEA OVER IT.

Because hemp has long been seen by the government as equivalent to marijuana, in 2001, the DEA tightened their enforcement of THC bans and started seizing shipments of hemp seed and hemp oil at the border. David led the industrial hemp industry in a lawsuit against the government, and just to make sure they didn’t miss his point, corporate representatives would camp outside the DEA’s headquarters and hand out samples of hemp granola and poppy-seed bagels (which made the point that poppy seeds contain trace amounts of opiates but are perfectly legal). The agency eventually reversed the policy.

12. SINCE THEN, THE COMPANY HAS ALSO FOUND ITSELF IN THE BUSINESS OF ACTIVISM.

When beauty product companies Kiss My Face and Avalon Organics advertised their products as “organic,” Bronner’s sued them over their false use of the word. The company changed the labels on their soap in 2014 in support of a measure in Washington state that would require the labeling of goods containing genetically modified organisms. David himself has been arrested twice: once for planting hemp seeds on the lawn of the DEA headquarters and once for milling hemp oil in front of the White House.

13. WHEN DR. BRONNER’S COULDN’T FIND AN ORGANIC AND FAIR-TRADE SOURCE FOR THEIR OILS, THE COMPANY STARTED ITS OWN FARM.

In a case of talking the talk and walking the walk, Dr. Bronner’s now operates its own organic and fair-trade palm, coconut, and olive oil farms in Ghana, Sri Lanka, and Israel, where, in keeping with their vision of world peace, they source their olive oil from both Israeli and Palestinian sources. Coconut oil is now almost as big of a product for Bronner’s as their bar soap.

14. THE PAY FOR THE HIGHEST EXECUTIVE AT THE COMPANY IS CAPPED AT FIVE TIMES THE LOWEST-PAID WORKER.

This means as CEO, David makes about $200,000 a year. Additionally, Dr. Bronner’s offers every employee a fully paid health plan, company contributions to an employee’s retirement fund at 15 percent of the employee’s salary, and a 25 percent annual bonus for all full-time employees. 

15. THE COMPANY HAS BECOME MORE POPULAR, BUT YOU STILL CAN'T GET ITS SOAP JUST ANYWHERE.

The original Dr. Bronner refused to sell his products to any retailer who wasn’t interested in hearing his thoughts on life. David twice rejected lucrative offers from Walmart because he didn’t want to support the company's politics and low pay for workers. However, the retail giant now carries the brand.

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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