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Another piece of industrial Baltimore succumbs to changing economics

A requiem for the old Lever Brothers factory on Holabird Avenue that kept America so very clean

Above: In this 1940s-era shot, Lever Brothers advertises its wares, including Rinso soap powder, Lux high-quality soap and Swan bar soap for babies.

So they’re pulling the plug on a place that kept millions of boys and girls clean and made housewives’ laundry sparkling white and cling-free.

After making detergents and sundry products for nearly a century, the old Lever Brothers plant – simply the “soap factory” to locals – is closing, shedding some 200 union-wage jobs and ending another chapter of Baltimore’s ebbing blue-collar legacy.

The new owner, Utah-based Sun Products (which, in turn, is controlled by a private equity firm in Connecticut), announced yesterday it would shift production out of the Holabird Avenue factory to a plant in Bowling Green, Ky., by the end of June.

Sun issued several lines of terse corporate-speak over the Internet – “volume and mix have been changing in our laundry category such that we can no longer produce product competitively at our Baltimore Plant” – to explain its decision.

Our attempts to reach an actual person at Sun headquarters resulted in a spokesperson telling us that the company had not yet determined the fate of the 50-acre site.

“We are focused right now on the transition of our employees who have given us so many excellent years of service,” said Kathryn Corbally in Salt Lake City.

Straight out of High School

In its heyday, Lever Brothers was as Baltimore as hard-shell crabs and corner bars.

The soap factory has been a landmark for decades at 5300 Holabird Avenue. This picture was taken yesterday afternoon (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The soap factory at 5300 Holabird Avenue has been a landmark for decades. It now stands alone on a large lot that stretches to Broening Highway. This picture was taken yesterday. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Generations of East Baltimore families labored at the plant, typically arriving on the production lines fresh out of high school. Back in the 1960s, when the factory was the biggest producer of laundry products worldwide for Unilever, the corporate parent, nearly 1,000 people labored inside the cavernous main building and numerous outbuildings and warehouses.

Back then, the company wasn’t all alone. There was the General Motors Chevy Assembly Plant just down the street and, across the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks on Broening Highway, the Point Breeze plant of Western Electric.

This little corner of southeast Baltimore had a solid 12,000 union jobs working around the clock and, after their shifts, the men and some of the ladies poured into the taverns along Holabird, joining steelworkers from Eastern Rolling Mills and Sparrows Point, longshoremen from the Canton docks and counterintelligence “spooks” from Fort Holabird in a burst of beery camaraderie.

Keeping It Clean

It was the American fetish for cleanliness and the whitest of whites that kept the plant in suds for so long.

Back in the 1930s, the factory’s Dutch-British owners realized that Americans, unlike their European counterparts, were not willing to forgo soap even in the worst of times.

A 1940s ad lauds Swan soap with a round of bad poetry:

A 1940s ad lauds Swan soap with a dollop of bad poetry: “Doctors and mamas with praises are wild, Swan’s pure as Castiles! Oh, so sudsy and mild!” (Wikimedia)

Americans found regular hand-washing and routine shower-taking a necessity, not a luxury.

At the same time, traditional hard-bar soaps were being repackaged as flakes and powders designed to lighten the work of homemakers.

The combination of steady demand and new markets led to the Baltimore plant becoming the premier site for such products as Rinso, the soap powder suitable for use in newfangled electric washers; Lux, advertised to be gentle enough for the most delicate woolen fabrics; and Swan, the “baby-mild” soap touted to be as pure as the finest Castiles (olive oil-based soaps).

Post-World War II America was the time for detergents and, in an ever-expanding market, Lever Brothers battled it out against Procter & Gamble (whose Tide plant was across the harbor at Locust Point).

Products changed rapidly as television spread the news of the wonders of liquid detergents, followed by synthetic detergents (many of which proved not so hot for the environment, foaming up in streams and sewer systems).

Biodegradable detergents damped down the foaming problems, and all sorts of “aromatic” products made it to the supermarket shelves. Cases of Surf, Final Touch and Snuggle fabric softener flowed out of Holabird Avenue onto awaiting trucks and rail cars, along with Dove and Caress bar soaps.

As late as 1990, there were still 700 employees at the plant, making it one of the largest factories in the city. There were new products like Lever 2000, an “all-in-one” deodorant and moisturizing soap, and Wisk Power Scoop, a super-concentrated detergent.

Tougher Times

But competition got tough as the new century approached, and Lever Brothers cut back in the face of soft sales. In 2008, the company sold its North American detergent/soap division to Sun Products.

No more Snuggles from Baltimore: production of the fabric-softener will be moved to Kentucky. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

No more Snuggles from Baltimore. Production of the fabric softener will move to Kentucky. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Under new management, the Holabird plant was no longer the favored facility. Production dwindled to about 20 million cases (down from 50 million in the 1990s).

The product line slimmed down to All, Wisk, Snuggle and some retailers’ own brands, according to spokesperson Corbally.

The handwriting was on the wall when Sun announced last May the layoff of 50 workers. An aging workforce kept cases of Wisk and Snuggle rolling out of the plant, knowing that the end was coming.

But they never knew for sure until yesterday.

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