Thursday, 11 February 2010

Sunlight soap, Battersea

Sadly yesterday's sign didn't make the temperatures go up but at least the sun is still out this morning. But we need more, brighter, sunlight!
Actually even if Helios remains hidden behind dark clouds, Sunlight can still be seen in many parts of London. Painted adverts for that particular brand of soap that is. Having posted one found north of the river last August, today's example comes from the other bank of the Thames.

Of course, if there is a river associated with Sunlight Soap, it is the Mersey rather than the Thames as it was near its bank that William Hesketh Lever erected Port Sunlight (then in Cheshire, now part of Merseyside). However the story of W. H. Lever and Sunlight Soap started a few miles away, in Lancashire. The son of a wholesale grocer based in Bolton, he joined the family business in 1867, aged 16, before becoming a partner at 21. As a commercial traveller and then director of Lever & Co. he had the opportunity to study the production process of the different kinds of soap available at the time. The rather appalling smell of both manufactured and homemade soaps led him to look for a possible alternative and in 1884 he launched Sunlight Soap. Contrary to most of its competitors, Sunlight Soap contained no silicate of soda, and more oils from copra, palm and cotton than tallow. Thus is lathered easily and did not generate a bad smell. There is little doubt that W. H. Lever had a flair for promotion and publicity, and until his death in 1925 he stayed in charge of the marketing strategy. His soap bars came in attractive packs, which not only protected the soap from oxygenisation and consequently from becoming rancid but also were a way of advertising. And then each soap bars had the name "Sunlight" stamped on it. At the same time, the first of many successful advertising campaigns was launched.
Originally Sunlight Soap was made by different manufacturers but in 1885, together with his brother James Darcy, he founded Lever Brothers and purchased the soap factory of Winser & Co in Warrington to produce it independently. Demand for Sunlight Soap was such that production rose from 20 to 450 tons a week within a matter of months. Additional land was purchased and local architect William Owen was asked to draw plans for the extension of the Warrington factory. However it became rapidly clear that the company would have to move out of Warrington if it wanted to expand even further. In 1887 Lever bought 56 acres in the Wirral peninsula, between a railway line and the Mersey. Two years later production started at the factory named Port Sunlight.
Like Sir Titus Salt with Saltaire before or the Cadbury brothers with Bournville around the same time, W. H. Lever believed it was in the interest of the company to provide employees with descent housing and recreational facilities. Of course there was a strong degree of paternalism, but there is no denying that for a good part of the twentieth century living and working conditions were far better at Port Sunlight than in most industrial areas of Britain, where squalor dominated.
In 1894 Lever Brothers launched Lifebuoy, a desinfectant soap, and in 1899 Sunlight Flakes, which was renamed one year later Lux Flakes. These two products became rapidly popular too. This was not due so much to their novelty (flaked soap for example had been known since the mid-nineteenth century) but to market research, packaging, and publicity campaigns.
From an early stage the company expanded internationally, setting up subsidiaries, taking over or amalgating with other manufacturers, while also assuming control of the supply of raw materials (its involvement in palm oil production in the Belgian Congo, where it took full advantage of the system of forced labour, cast a very dark shadow on Lever...). Abroad the major market was the US, and there as well the success of Lever's soaps was down to successful advertising campaigns launched in the mid-1910s and the 1920s, which propelled them from their confined corner of New England to the rest of the nation.
Meanwhile, in Britain, from 1914 Lever became involved in the production of margarine. After being approached by the government, which anticipated disruptions in the supply of margarine from Europe because of the war, Lever formed Planter's Margarine Co., a joint venture with its major competitor, Watson. In 1915 Lever assumed full control of the company. Sales of margarine boomed during the war but declined once deliveries from the Netherlands and Denmark resumed. However from 1924 sales of soap stagnated and the management of Lever began considering developing its presence in the edible fat market. This explains why in 1930 it merged with the Dutch concern Margarine Unie to form Unilever. But that's another story.
As for Sunlight Soap, even though it is still sold in parts of the world, production ceased in Britain in 2009 due to low demand.

If Lever Brothers launched regular advertising campaigns for their products, I doubt they spent much in painted signs. Of course there are several Sunlight signs around but most seem to date from the same era, namely the 1890s. Indeed only on enamel signs and packages from that period is Sunlight (or the other Lever soap, Lifebuoy) written in that particular way. Obviously I haven't researched that extensively so I could be totally wrong and they could have used that design again at a later stage, but I'll take my chances... Let me know what you think.


Since all the other Sunlight Soap signs include at least another line underneath, I think the lower part of this one has been swallowed by the roof of the garage next door.

Location: Chatham Road / Picture taken on: 23/05/2008


Unknown said...

Dear Sebastien
I would be interested in licensing some of your Sunlight Soap Ghost Signs for a TV documentary.

Please get in touch - nick.gilbert @

We can pay for whatever gets used in the show - more info after you email me.

Unknown said...

This bit of Sunlight shines no more. It's now been covered by a gated development of four luxury houses with parking!