n the 1890s, William Hesketh Lever, founder of Lever Brothers, wrote down his ideas for Sunlight Soap – his revolutionary new product that helped popularise cleanliness and hygiene in Victorian England.
It was “to make cleanliness commonplace; to lessen work for women; to foster health and contribute to personal attractiveness, that life may be more enjoyable and rewarding for the people who use our products”.
That sense of purpose and mission has always been part of Unilever’s culture. In the 21st century, we’re still helping people to look good, feel good and get more out of life – and our purpose as a business is ‘making sustainable living commonplace’.
Follow our timeline to find out more about our history.
In the late 19th Century, at Oss in Brabant, the Netherlands, Jurgens and Van den Bergh – two family businesses of butter merchants – have thriving export trades to the UK.
In the early 1870s, they become interested in a new product made from beef fat and milk – margarine – which, they realise, could be mass-produced as an affordable substitute for butter.
Later, over in the north of England in the mid-1880s, a successful wholesale family grocery business run by William Lever starts producing a new type of household soap. The product contains copra or pine kernel oil, which helps it lather more easily than traditional soaps made of animal fats. Unusually for the time, Lever gives the soap a brand name – Sunlight – and sells it wrapped in distinctive packs.
In the Netherlands, Jurgens and Van den Bergh open their first factories to produce margarine.
Lever & Co starts producing Sunlight soap.
Knorr – which will become part of Unilever – launches soup tablets with meat extract to provide nutritious food for low-income consumers.
By the end of this year Lever & Co is making 450 tons of Sunlight soap a week and William Lever buys the site on which he’ll build Port Sunlight – a large factory on the banks of the Mersey opposite Liverpool, with a purpose-built village for its workers providing a high standard of housing, amenities and leisure facilities.
Jurgens and Van den Bergh both move into another prosperous market, Germany, and build factories there.
Lever & Co becomes a limited company – Lever Brothers Ltd.
Van den Bergh moves to new headquarters in Rotterdam.
To support and promote the growing interest in personal hygiene, Lever & Co creates an affordable new product – Lifebuoy Soap.
Lever Brothers becomes a public company.
In the UK Lever Brothers is selling nearly 40 000 tons of Sunlight soap a year and starts expanding into Europe, America and the British colonies with factories, export businesses and plantations.
By this time Van den Bergh already has a 750-strong salesforce and launches a new branded margarine – Vitello.
Lever Brothers introduces a new type of product, Sunlight Flakes – which makes housework easier than with the traditional hard soap bars. In 1900 Sunlight Flakes would become Lux Flakes.
Competition and a sudden sharp rise in the cost of raw materials leads many to set up associations, promoting their interests and defending themselves against supplier monopolies.
With supplies of oils and fats struggling to meet the demand created by fast growing soap and margarine production, the companies that will one day become Unilever focus on securing stable sources of raw materials.
In the UK, Lever Brothers launch another product to make housework easier – Vim, one of the first scouring powders.
The company is incorporated in South Africa.
By now Lever Brothers has a thriving export trade and factories in three European countries as well as one each in Canada, Australia and the US. It has also started enterprises in the Pacific.
The same year Lever Brothers comes to an agreement with three other manufacturers to limit competition for raw materials, but is attacked by the press who, dubbing them ‘The Soap Trust’, accuse them of driving up prices. Lever Brothers subsequently sues the Daily Mail and in 1907 wins £50 000 damages – a massive settlement by the standards of the time.
Jurgens and Van den Bergh strike a deal to form an association and share profits while continuing to compete against each other.
Lever Brothers develops a palm plantation in the Solomon Islands and at the same time Jurgens and Van den Bergh set up a joint palm-planting venture in German Africa.