‘So clean’

Lord Leverhulme, soap and civilization

Author: Brian Lewis

This book is an unorthodox biography of William Hesketh Lever, 1st Lord Leverhulme (1851-1925), the founder of the Lever Brothers' Sunlight Soap empire. The most frequently recurring comparison during his life and at his death, however, was with Napoleon. What the author finds most fascinating about him is that he unites within one person so many intriguing developments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book first sketches out his life, the rise and triumph of his business, and explores his homes, his gardens and his collections. It contains essays on Lever in the context of the history of advertising, of factory paternalism, town planning, the Garden City movement and their ramifications across the twentieth century, and of colonial encounters. Lever had worked hard at opening agencies and selling his soap abroad since 1888. But if import drives proved unsatisfactory, logic dictated that soap should be manufactured and sold locally, both to reduce the price by vaulting tariff barriers on imports and to cater for idiosyncratic local tastes. As D. K. Fieldhouse points out, Lever Brothers was one of the first generation of capitalist concerns to manufacture in a number of countries. The company opened or started building factories in America, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and Germany in the late 1890s. It then spread to most western European countries and the other white settler colonies of the empire, as well as more tentatively to Asia and Africa.

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