Friedrich Karl Henkel (1848–1920)

Domestic cleaning products are some of the least romantic products of twentieth- and twenty-first-century industry, and their historical development is not widely understood. Friedrich Karl Henkel contributed substantially to the development and marketing of detergents and allied products.

He was born at Vöhl near Kassel, but moved to Elberfeld (now part of Wuppertal) at the age of 17, and worked for Gebrüder Gessert, manufacturers of paint, varnish and other chemicals. He represented the company at the Paris Exhibition in 1873, and rose to the post of chief clerk.

In 1874 he became a partner in the chemical firm of Henkel and Strebet where he took responsibility for the manufacture of isinglass and detergents. The company re-located to Aachen in 1876, and two years later moved again to Düsseldorf where Henkel rented an empty soap factory where he made soda for bleaching. In 1880 he began construction of a factory at Düsseldort-Flingern and before long the company’s turnover exceeded one million Deutschmarks. A new headquarters was constructed in 1899 at Düsseldort-Holthausen, and the company gained a reputation as philanthropic employers, provided pensions for retired workers, making anniversaries with presentations, giving Christmas parties and providing libraries in workplaces.

Henkel’s principal innovation was the introduction in 1907 of a self-acting detergent whose main ingredients were sodium PERbonate and sodium SILicate, after which it was named PERSIL, although in France, where the word means the herb parsley (German: Petersilie), it was marketed as ‘Le Chat’. Persil, unlike other washing materials which were sold loose and placed by shopkeepers in bags, was only sold in branded boxes. After the launch of Persil the company developed abrasives and detergents based on isinglass.

Henkel retired in 1911, passing control of the business to his young son Hugo, and was honoured that year with the title of Royal Prussian Counsellor of Commerce. In 1921 Hugo Henkel established a new plant to manufacture Persil at Genthin, east of the River Elbe between Berlin and Magdeburg on the Elbe-Havel Canal.

Both father and son employed imaginative marketing to promote Persil. There were Persil clocks and Persil-sponsored schools and men with Persil-white umbrellas paraded through Berlin in 1908. Aircraft with smoke trails were employed in 1930. Two years later a full length movie was produced Wäsche, Waschen, Wohlergehen (Laundering, Washing, Well-being) which was seen by 30 million people by 1939. The Persil brand came to be owned in the United Kingdom and some other countries by the Unilever conglomerate.