So clean

Lord Leverhulme, soap and civilization
Lewis, Brian
Date published: 
October 2008

This book is an unorthodox biography of William Hesketh Lever, 1st Lord Leverhulme (1851-1925), the founder of the Lever Brothers' Sunlight Soap empire. Unlike previous biographies, which have focused on the man's life story and eccentricities, or just considered one aspect of his career, So clean places him squarely in his social and cultural context and is fully informed by recent historical scholarship. What is most fascinating about Lever is that he unites within one person so many intriguing developments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Much more than a warts-and-all biography, the book does not simply sketch out his life and the rise and triumph of his business, or explore his homes, his gardens and his art and furniture collections. It also uses him as an entry-point for contextualized and comparative essays on the history of advertising; on factory paternalism, town planning, the Garden City movement and their ramifications across the twentieth century; and on colonialism and forced labour in the Belgian Congo and the South Pacific. It concludes with a discussion of his extraordinary attempt, in his final years, to transform crofting and fishing in the Outer Hebrides. In the quest to impose 'civilization' on the working classes, west Africans and Scottish islanders, Lever's methods were not always 'so clean' as his many admirers have imagined.

Written in an engaging and accessible style, So Clean will have broad appeal to academics and students working in business, social, cultural and imperial history and to a wider readership.