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1900 – 1950 – Joining forces, Unilever comes to life

1900 - What happened in the 1900s?

An aerial shot of a factory

With supplies of oils and fats struggling to meet the demand created by fast-growing soap and margarine production - and in an increasingly competitive market - Jurgens, Van den Bergh and Lever Brothers focus on securing stable sources of raw materials.

1902 - Lever Brothers begin to source their own supply of raw materials

A palm plantation

By now, Lever Brothers have a thriving export trade and factories in South Africa, Europe, Canada, Australia and the US. In response to the problem of sourcing raw materials need to make soap, they seek to create their own sources for supply, Lever Pacific Plantations was formed in 1902 and Huileries du Congo Belge in 1911.

1904 - Lever Brothers launch Vim - an innovation in homecare

An advert for Vim

In 1904, Lever Brothers launch Vim, one of the very first scouring powders. It is the first specially formulated product of its kind to be marketed in Britain. Originally, the principal abrasive ingredient of Vim is silica, which comes by rail and road from quarries in North Wales.

1908 - Jurgens and Van den Bergh join forces to combat a weak margarine market

The Van den Bergh organisation

Between 1906 and 1907 the Dutch margarine industry sees its competitive strength weaken as increased supply of butter lowers the value of margarine. On 13 February 1908, a 'secret' pooling agreement is reached whereby the Jurgens and Van den Bergh businesses agree to pool their profits. At the same time, the two companies set up a joint palm-planting venture in Africa.

1910 - What happened in the 1910s?

A collection of soap dyes

As the First World War is set to make a big impact, soap and margarine are in huge demand as vital wartime supplies, and the oil and fats industry is placed under the control of the British and German governments. Lever Brothers, Jurgens and Van den Bergh increase their interests in the production of raw materials to supply the booming demand.

1911 -The first research lab is built at Port Sunlight

In 1911, Lever Brothers' first purpose-built research laboratory is constructed at Port Sunlight. Research work includes laboratory analysis, testing raw materials and the finished soap, the recovery of waste heat from the condensers, boiling down of caustic liquors in steam boilers and the development of the glycerine department.

1914 - Lever Brothers support employees and their families during wartime

A recruitment poster from 1914

In the year that war breaks out, companies controlled by Lever Brothers are making about 135 000 tons of soap a year. For employees drafted to war, Lever Brothers agreed to re-employ them on their return and give allowances to their dependants whilst they were away.

1917 - Lever Brothers acquire long-established Pears Soap

In 1917, Lever Brothers Ltd acquire Pears Soap, a company said to have been established as far back as 1789 by Andrew Pears. Pears wanted to develop a pure soap that would be gentler on the skin than many of the harsh products of the time. By 1807 he had succeeded in developing a method of producing a high-quality amber-coloured, delicately perfumed transparent soap. Key elements of Pears' production process, developed to achieve the transparency and purity of the soap, have been continued throughout the history of the product.

1917 - Jurgens and Van den Bergh bring margarine manufacturing to England

Purfleet blending

In 1917, Jurgens and Van den Bergh establish factories in England, with one in Purfleet, Essex, which is still manufacturing margarine today. The factory is extended in 1957 and again in 1971, and by 1959 there are 1,000 workers employed there. They make Stork Margarine, processed cheese and soft drinks. In more recent years, the Purfleet factory has expanded to make some of Unilever's best-known brands such as Flora, Bertolli and Olivio and is reputed to be the largest margarine factory in the world.

1920 - What happened in the 1920s?

Union doc

The post-war boom is in decline and during the 1920s the margarine market suffers as butter becomes more affordable. By the end of the 1920s, Jurgens owns margarine factories in Scotland, Ireland and England and Lever Brothers controls 60% of the output of UK soap manufacturing. Before the decade is out, alliances reach their ultimate conclusion and the official history of Unilever begins.

1922 - Lever Brothers buy Wall's, a sausage company with ice cream ambitions

An advert for Walls sausages
A Walls ice cream seller riding a bicycle

In 1922, Lever Brothers Ltd buy Wall's, a popular sausage company. The meat business, however, is very seasonal in nature, and fresh perishable products cannot be properly distributed at the time, resulting in sales of pork products dropping dramatically during the summer months. The idea is proposed to make ice cream during the summer season.

Due to the war, the idea does not come to fruition until 1922 and initial ice cream sales are disappointing, as retailers are reluctant to buy in quantity. The solution is to sell directly to the customer and so salesmen are sent out on tricycles. This is the first time in Britain that ice cream has been factory-made, pre-hardened and wrapped for mass distribution, branded and retailed in this way.

1926 - Lifebuoy's Clean Hands campaign promotes hygiene and boosts market

A clean hands certificate

Lever Brothers launches its Clean Hands Campaign. As part of its child health policy, it encourages the habits of personal cleanliness among primary school children, educating them about dirt and germs and teaching them how to wash their hands properly. Children are encouraged to complete a 'Clean Hands Chart' which is marked each time they wash their hands 'Before Breakfast', 'Before Dinner' and 'After school' for each day of the week.

1927 - The formation of Margarine Unie

The Margarine union

Margarine businesses Jurgens and Van den Bergh, Jbusinesses, Centra and Schicht join forces to create Margarine Unie - the Margarine Union. The union quickly gains new members, creating a large group of European businesses involved in the production of almost all goods created from oils and fats. In 1928, Margarine Unie acquires the French-Dutch Calvé-Delft group with factories in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Czechoslovakia. The following year the Union also acquires the firm Hartog's.

1930 - What happened in the 1930s?

Captain Birdseye

The 1930s is a tough decade - it starts with the Great Depression and ends with a new world war. But despite the recession the business continues to expand, partly through the development of new products in its established markets, and partly by acquiring companies to take it into emerging categories like frozen and convenience foods. Soap production also moves further from hard soaps to flakes and powders designed to make lighter work of household cleaning. This leads to expansion in the soap market.

1930 - Margarine Unie and Lever Brothers unite to establish Unilever

A Unilever Announcement article

On 2 September 1929, Margarine Unie and Lever Brothers sign an agreement to create Unilever. The businesses initially aim to negotiate an arrangement to keep out of each other's principal interests of soap and margarine production, but ultimately decide on an amalgamation instead. Described in The Economist as “one of the biggest industrial amalgamations in European history”, Unilever is officially established on 1 January 1930. However, the year also sees Procter & Gamble enter the UK market, becoming one of Unilever's largest rivals.

1938 - Vitamin-enriched brands boost margarine business

Stork Margarine
Blue Band margarine

After a campaign to improve public perceptions of margarine and the growth of vitamin-enriched brands such as Stork in the UK and Blue Band in the Netherlands, sales of margarine rise to levels close to the highs of 1929.

1940 - What happened in the 1940s?

An employee packaging Vim

During the war years Unilever is effectively broken up, with businesses in German- and Japanese-occupied territory cut off from London and Rotterdam. This leads to the development of a corporate structure in which local Unilever businesses act with a high level of independence and focus on the needs of local markets.

1941 - Lifebuoy provides public support during the Blitz

Children queueing for the Lifebuoy emergency hot water service

During the Blitz, Lifebuoy soap provides a free emergency washing service to Londoners. Lifebuoy vans equipped with hot showers, soap and towels visit bomb-struck areas of the capital to offer much-needed mobile washing facilities.

1943 - Unilever ventures into frozen products and acquires Batchelors

Birds Eye green peas packaging

Unilever becomes the majority shareholder in Frosted Foods and the UK rights to a method of food preservation new to mass markets: deep-freezing. Years later, freezing will enjoy a resurgence of popularity when it's shown to be one of the best ways of naturally preserving the goodness of fresh food. Around the same time, Unilever acquires Batchelors, which specialises in freeze-dried vegetables and canned goods.

1946 - Birds Eye adds to Unilever's food portfolio

Birds Eye green peas

Birds Eye launches the first frozen peas in the UK. At this time meat, fish, ice cream and canned goods account for only 9% of Unilever's total turnover.