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


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

Photo by:

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: "Doctors and mamas with praises are wild, Swan's pure as castiles! Oh, so sudsy and mild!"

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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  • davethesuave

    this is a tough story. the fact they’re moving to Kentucky, as opposed to going out of business, tells me they couldn’t or wouldn’t negotiate with the union. Another loss for the Baltimore working folks, and a victory for those of Kentucky. Do you know if they are offering to re-locate the workers to Bowling Green?

    • baltimorebrew

      Sun Products apparently didn’t notify the union (Chemical Workers Union Council Local 217) of the shudown until yestrday, let alone negotiate. Workers are being offered standard severance packages and job-search assistance, but no job opportunities in Kentucky. -mr

    • Paul

      No they would never allow union workers in a non union plant. They never offered to the 53 originally laid off.

  • Steve

    The powers that be should acquire the property, raze the buildings, and
    move the correctional complex out there. After all, there has been over 500
    million allocated to replace the complex, and it would free up 27 acres of prime
    downtown real estate for redevelopment.

    • Matthew Riesner

      I like it but similar a proposal was made not too long ago to build a Federal prison (good work for blue collar folks with somewhat clean criminal records) not too far from there in Dundalk and my old buddy Babs blocked to proposal.

  • ushanellore

    Another bunch of folks out of work. Baltimore is bleeding.

  • KnowNothingParty

    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 – I would like Sun to explain this comment. Why can they NOT produce a competitive product on Holabird Avenue but can do so in Kentucky? Truly sad day for Baltimore industry.

    • Paul

      I was one of the 53 laid off. I believe it was part of a master plan. Unilever’s detergent plant was merged with Huish the private label company. Baltimore’s plant prior t it’s sale, provided laundry detergent (Snuggle, Wish, and All) for the whole United States and Sunlight for Canada.

      • petefrombaltimore

        Mr Paul
        Not that it helps you any.But im sorry that you lost your job. And i wish you luck in finding a new job.

      • ushanellore

        I am sorry Paul this happened to you. I have used your products and thanks. Wish you every success in a new job search if you are up for one.

      • exspworker

        Sorry Paul, I know how you feel as my job was also lost @ Sparrows Point. Good luck on the job search. And if any state and local politicians read the Brew please ask yourselves why this is happening and what can be done to reverse this trend.
        I am glad that Amazon has chosen Baltimore for their distribution center but you can’t replace the high paying jobs that we are losing with little better than unemployment wages. The cost of living and taxes in this area either remain unchanged or on the increase. You are losing your tax base and can’t seem to do anything about it other than create more taxes!

  • exspworker

    This state is a joke and is being run into the ground by tax hungry simpletons.

  • Walter

    Rain Tax – Now a new Snow Tax and Road Salt Tax on small businesses too!

    The Maryland Democrats in Towson and Annapolis are working overtime to find more ways to pick the pockets of businesses and the working families.

    Soon only the Crack Heads and illegals will be the only ones getting checks in their mailboxes. Maybe I can get a job at Walmart so that the local Democrats can
    take money out of that tiny check too?

    • ushanellore

      One WALMART somewhere took up a collection plate for its employees last Christmas. Depending on what type of job you get with WALMART you may not even see a pay check–just a collection plate. I doubt the state will be after your collection plate but even that may taxable under TaxoMalley.

  • Randall Amey

    @ Steve. Your idea for a sparkling new prison sucks. We don’t want it. This strip of land is being revitalized now with the new Amazon complex. You can keep your prison downtown where it is now , where it belongs, next to where the crimes are committed.

    • Walter

      Randall you are correct that the new prison will not be built across the street from the new Amazon complex. A much better place would be nearby at the closed Beth Steel Steel Mill site. Plenty of room and it will fly because of all the high paying public-sector jobs it will bring to the area.

      Prison related jobs come with a steady taxpayer backed paycheck, full health coverage, and State secured pensions – a win-win to get East Baltimore back to work!

      • ushanellore

        How regressive. We need to educate the children, put less of them in prison and create worthy jobs for them, instead you want steady prison jobs for East Baltimore? Should we also lock up more folks so prisons will never go out of style and we’ll always have public sector prison jobs? East Baltimoreans arresting East Baltimoreans and living off the carrion of East Baltimoreans–now that’s what I call a plan for East Baltimore.

        • Matthew Riesner

          We do need to educate our children and create jobs (these need to be our number 1 priorities) but at the same time we need to have beds for imprisoning the bad people who walk among us. When people who lie, cheat, steal, sell hard drugs, oppress, rape, and murder are allowed back on the street because there is simply not the room to house them in the local correctional facilities, we need to build more. We can have all the starry deams we want about how we can change these people or prevent young folks from going down those paths but at the end of the day criminals are still with us and we need to do something to separate them so a bad apple doesn’t ruin the bunch. If you don’t want kids to become criminals, remove the criminals so the kid will not socialized into becoming criminals because children are a product of what they are exposed to.
          Futhermore, with those facilities comes some good jobs. Given that no one these days will allow you to place a prison in a residential or even a commercial area; industrial and rural areas are the only real choices, so using an area like this for a prison is appropriate.

          • ushanellore

            It is with sadness we must build prisons not with gladness they will bring jobs. I bet you’ve read about the kids for cash scheme in Pennsylvania that got two judges convicted. These judges got kickbacks when they promised to close a public prison facility so their cronies can build two private ones. They judged kids harshly for minor crimes. The idea was to crowd the public facility and prove a need for private prisons. The judges ruined many a juvenile’s life. One young man committed suicide. How is this relevant to the discussion here? Drooling enthusiasm, of the type exhibited by Walter, for prison jobs deserves castigation, not celebration because such enthusiasm is misplaced.

            I tell you, there are psychopaths of all categories about. Our entire recession was an exercise in financial rape and murder by the rich on the middle class and poor, because many gullible folks who lost their shirts to the “preying” mantises of Wall Street felt violated and stabbed. I don’t see much consternation or a movement to build extra prisons to house our white collar speculators, gamblers and pyramidal schemers who caused deaths, suicides and foreclosures.

            The exuberant advocacy for and promotion of new prisons is a blot on America that already imprisons more folks than the rest of the developed world.

            If we must build prisons let us build them quietly with regret and sorrow, let us not call those who recoil from the idea starry eyed dreamers and let us not revel that prison jobs are good jobs and hence a salvation to communities.

    • HS

      I don’t think the new Amazon facility is going to be the wonderland that is being sold to you. They are known for being abusive to the workers:,0,6434109.story?track=rss

  • petefrombaltimore

    Baltimore leaders seem to be trying to attract tech jobs. But dont seem to mind that we are losing blue collar jobs. I used to buy my chisels from Baltimore Tool Works in South Baltimore.but they also seem to have gone out of business

    We seem to be moving towards the type of job market that Washington DC has long had. Where half the city is wealthy from professional jobs. A quarter of the city basicly serves the wealthy half by building their homes,cleaning their homes, and stocking store shelves for them,washing dishes at their resturuants,ect And the remaining quarter is supported by welfare

    Thats pretty much a Third World economy

    • snarkycomments

      You seem to have identified the problem. The hard part is the solutions. The normal response of “send taxpayer money to a corporation as a ‘subsidy’ so a tiny fraction can be trickled back down to a few workers” is surprisingly less effective than one might think.

      • petefrombaltimore

        Well, i never said that i favored subsidies for businesses. Personally i favor the Government[whether local,State or Federal] to have a broad business friendly enviroment. As opposed to giving subsidies to specific industries .Or even worse, specific companies

        • exspworker

          It is up to our state leaders in conjunction with our local leaders to attract business to this area. We don’t need more McDonald’s and 7-11’s.

        • snarkycomments

          I never said you did; I was referring to our mayor. However, we may not agree on what “business friendly environment” entails. That is often a code words for cutting back on labor or environmental protections or for tax breaks for politically connected companies.

          On the other hand, at the neighborhood level, I do see a lot of NIMBY organizations that actively try to suppress jobs and businesses at the local level. They don’t mean to, they claim, but their knee jerk opposition to everything has that effect. If we want jobs in Baltimore, one place to start would be to try and reign in the worst of the NIMBY groups (RNA, I’m looking at you).

          • petefrombaltimore

            I think that a broad business friendly enviroment is the exact opposite of favoring politcally connected companies

            And no one is suggesting that we allow businesses to ruin the city’s enviroment And quite frankly, heavy industry isnt coming back to Baltimore

            But Baltimore can, and should, make the city business friendly enough to attract small workshops and industrial parks. Ive known many business owners and resturaunt owners.they never complain about health or safety regulations. But what they DO complain about is senseless red tape that delays their starting a business

            And while its good that amazon is building a wharehouse nearby, it does seem that the City is trying much much harder to get tech jobs to come to Baltimore, than get blue collar jobs. For a while they were even talking about shutting down the Clinton Street piers where ships are unloaded

          • snarkycomments

            We are in absolute agreement. Makes me wonder if the first step a citizen could take to reduce the negative impact of the red tape would simply be to create a public database of these regulations? A useful database might contains information on why it exists, how it’s enforced, why it is burdensome and then open it up to a communal conversation on how it could be improved. The goal would be to propose to the city (and eventually the state) changes that would reduce the negative impact of regulation on jobs and the economy while still protecting the “commons”, the environment and quality of life issues that make the city worth living in the first place.

            Obviously there would be disagreement. I happen to view the current liqueur licensing processes as an expensive, byzantine cluster-f#&k that kills jobs and destroys small business owners. Others around here obviously love the leverage those regulations give them over the restaurants in their neighborhoods. Not sure we’ll ever see eye-to-eye on that topic.

          • americax4

            that was an incredibly civil back-and-forth, pete & snark, with both calling for real investigation (and civic soul searching), with some proactive potential policy responses thrown in. am i still on the internet?

          • petefrombaltimore

            I would add to my previous comments by noting that not every factory that has left Baltimore ,has gone to China or even Alabama,ect

            Both Mcormick spice Co and Proctor & Gamble moved to the suburbs. Its worth asking why. Hunt Valley and Harford county dont have lower wages than Baltimore city.Quite the contrary. And are enviromental laws looser in the suburbs than they are in Baltimore City ? I doubt it.

            And i doubt its because they needed newer facilities and land was cheaper in the suburbs. Because you can buy large areas of industrialy zoned property in Baltimore City , for very cheap. Just check out the local property auction sites

            So in order to attract new businesses to Baltimore, and stop older businesses from leaving, we do need to ask why some businesses moved just five or ten miles up the road .They obviously liked being in the Baltimore area.but also obviously made a point of being outside of the city limits

      • noclist

        Yet without the subsidies the companies wouldn’t come there to begin with and the jobs would have been outsourced to Mexico. Tax subsidies equalize the pay differences between the union workers and the outsourced workers.

    • tim

      Everyone can say what you want and point fingers at government, employees, unions but bottom line is that the property is worth more than its profits. Someone in the SUN corporation has determined that this piece of property will soon be worth big money with the revitilization of Baltimore, building of the casino. Same thing happened at RG Steel where i worked for many years, secret plans have determined that the property is going to be slated for a facility for importing cars with a deep water port.

      The Lever facility just happens to be across the street of the place where the new AMAZON facility is going to be built. So the real purpose might be, close it down, get rid of the high priced union jobs, and make the products in our other plant, sell the property and let the CEO’s and cronies reap the benefits of the big deal. Only people who loose are the average people who are just trying to survive to get a retirement.

      • ushanellore


      • HS

        Found that pre-2010 design for SP, too? Thought I was the only one.

  • exspworker

    All I can say is this needs to be addressed during the election process for every local, county, state and federal office that is being campaigned for. This downward spiral needs to stop now.

  • crosstown

    “Generations of East Baltimore families arriving fresh out of high school” alludes to what the article doesn’t directly say, and that is, many of those workers were handed those jobs through nepotism. I recall learning about Lever Brothers during the seventies and how the jobs were well paying but you couldn’t get hired unless you had a relative already working there.

    • Bernie

      Strange! I worked there from ’91 ’til today and you were not allowed to work there if someone related was already there! Where’d you hear THAT nonsense?

      • crosstown

        I said during the seventies, you idiot!

        • Bernie

          Gee, you WOULD’VE fit right in there with that type of volatile attitude, even in the 21st Century!

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