Domestos and Domestics: The Family Metaphor at Lever Brothers– Source of the Month (August 2023)

In our previous blog post, we explored how large firms in the early twentieth century employed the rhetoric of ‘family’ to foster unity and a sense of community among their employees. This time, we turn our attention to Lever Brothers, which later became Unilever following a merger in 1930.

Lever Brothers used the language of family in its earliest employee communications. In 1900, it began a decade-spanning company magazine Progress (1900-1970), taking the place of the more short-lived Port Sunlight Monthly Journal. The first issues of Progress reveal how the firm sought to cultivate a familial atmosphere, emphasising shared prosperity, and promoted a sense of unity and loyalty among its workforce.

Lever Brothers was one of the major players in the welfare movement of the early twentieth century, which was explored in July’s blog post. Its internal communications embodied the idea of the firm as a family. Lever Brothers sought to create a relationship between the company and its employees that was intended to create a sense of unity, loyalty, and mutual benefit.

Taken from Progress, vol. 3, no. 39 (Dec 1902), p. 452. Downloaded from the Unilever Archive, GB1752.LBL/3/1/2/3.

At the most basic level, Progress filled its pages with news about the families who worked for the company. Typical of its content was a report in December 1902 about a certain Mr and Mrs Knight and their child, who were leaving England for Mr Knight to take up his position as chairman of Lever Brothers in Toronto. Above are photographs taken of the family shortly before setting sail to their new home.

Furthermore, the language of family was deployed in relation to the workforce itself. Last month’s blog post explored how this went hand-in-hand with welfare programmes. At Lever Brothers, this philosophy of family and welfare lay at the heart of the company. In 1888, the firm founded the town of Port Sunlight, built to provide high quality housing and recreational facilities for its workers. Although Port Sunlight is no longer reserved for Unilever employees, a visit to the town clearly reveals its historical and pioneering culture of industrial welfare and community. Despite now being within a large urban conurbation, it has a rustic atmosphere that strikes a stark contrast with the surrounding area.

Port Sunlight today.

Lord Lever, the head of the business, very much presented himself as the head of the family and adopted a paternal role. Early editions of Progress regularly printed full speeches that he had given in which he refers to his family. One article from October 1909 refers to ‘the family partnership’, ‘the father of the business’, and ‘the children of the family’, with the latter referring to apprentices and probationers. Lord Lever even went as far as sharing his burial wishes with his ‘family’:

‘Mr. Lever, in the course of a speech at a social gathering held in the Bridge Inn, said there was only one idea which Mrs. Lever and himself had, and that was that when the end of life came, they should rest in Port Sunlight and be surrounded by those who worked with them in the business. They would feel they were a family in this world and a family when this world was done with.’

Taken from Progress, vol. 6, no. 66 (Mar 1905), p. 118. Downloaded from the Unilever Archive, GB1752.LBL/3/1/2/6.

In a fascinating article from June 1904, family rhetoric was used to urge the employees to be brand ambassadors. It talked about doing the ‘family wash’, describing the logistical challenge of cleaning overalls for thousands of employees, along with caps and towels. In part, this article emphasised a paternalistic concern for the employees’ wellbeing in the sense of creating a comfortable and hygienic working environment. However, it also said that this almost unmanageable load of laundry had been made possible through Sunlight Soap. The article hoped that employees would advocate the approach to laundry that ‘their family’ used.

Taken from Progress, vol. 5, no. 57 (Jun 1904), p. 215. Downloaded from the Unilever Archive, GB1752.LBL/3/1/2/5.

So far, this blog post has given examples of managers employing the rhetoric of family for their own agenda. Yet the magazines also reveal how, at least in some cases, this influenced how mid-level employees articulated their own ideas. In December 1901, there was a letter from G.W. Horner who worked in Kings Lynn as an agent for Lever Brothers:

‘Dear Sir, I cannot let the birthday of Progress pass without offering my congratulations and telling you how much I appreciate the magazine. Not only are the doings in Sunlightdom of great interest to every member of the “family,” but they, together with the editorial matter, are of such a nature that no one, I think, can read Progress without feeling that it is good to work and good to do one’s best. A magazine which exerts an influence of this sort must be a power for good.

With very best wishes,

G.W. Horner, Agent’

Taken from Progress, vol. 2, no. 27 (Dec 1901), p. 412. Downloaded from the Unilever Archive, GB1752.LBL/3/1/2/2.

The language of family was used strategically by Lever Brothers from its earliest employee communications. In these examples we have seen at play the four purposes of the rhetoric of family described in July’s blog post. Firstly, the language aimed to foster a sense of belonging and unity among the workforce, with the intention of improving morale and productivity. Secondly, it promoted the idea of the workplace as a home, supporting employee retention. Thirdly, it conveyed a sense of coherence, highlighting shared objectives within a large, international operation. Finally, it  instilled a sense of pride in the employees, motivating them to become brand ambassadors and to take pride in the products like Sunlight Soap that they not only manufactured at work, but also used in their ‘families’.

Sources

Progress, vol. 2, no. 27 (Dec 1901), p. 412. Downloaded from the Unilever Archive, GB1752.LBL/3/1/2/2.

Progress, vol. 3, no. 39 (Dec 1902), p. 452. Downloaded from the Unilever Archive, GB1752.LBL/3/1/2/3.

Progress, vol. 5, no. 57 (Jun 1904), pp. 215-16. Downloaded from the Unilever Archive, GB1752.LBL/3/1/2/5.

Progress, vol. 6, no. 66 (Mar 1905), p. 118. Downloaded from the Unilever Archive, GB1752.LBL/3/1/2/6.

Progress, vol. 6, no. 72 (Sep 1905), pp. 321-23. Downloaded from the Unilever Archive, GB1752.LBL/3/1/2/6.

Progress, vol. 9, no. 95 (Oct 1909), p. 110. Downloaded from the Unilever Archive, GB1752.LBL/3/1/2/8.

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