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.
Product innovation, 19th century style
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.