German Soap Stars

In the late 1880s, three brothers came to study at the University: George Sharp, Alexander Sharp and John Sharp Douglas. They were all born in Hamburg, Germany, and were the sons of Alexander Sharp Douglas, whose occupation they cited as “retired from business, soap manufacturer.”

Douglas teddy bear

Douglas teddy bear

Like a lot of our student records that were kept by the University, the Sharp Douglas brothers’ records suggest an interesting background, but it was not until a trip to Germany that I twigged just as to how interesting. In fact, it was a teddy bear dressed in tartan with the Douglas branding on the foot that piqued my interest  – rather than any historical research I had undertaken. Those three brothers, as it turned out, were in fact the grandsons of the founder of what has become a successful global company today, Douglas.

After contacting Douglas Holding AG, I received their extensive business history, which all started in 1821 with a soap boiler from Govan (Glasgow),  John Sharp Douglas (c.1792 – 1847), who set sail for Hamburg and opened his soap factory with a small shop on the side. He would pioneer soap production with scents and oils, while cultivating a strong brand that would stand the test of time.

Douglas' second soap factory at St Pauli

Douglas’ second soap factory at St Pauli

Thomas Thomson

Professor Thomas Thomson

A soap boiler would not have necessarily had to have any University training, but instead would have served an apprenticeship. Nevertheless, I looked through the University records, and found one John Sharp in the Medical Matriculations. John Sharp – the Douglas, his mother’s maiden name, was an addition he made in Germany – enrolled for a Chemistry class in 1817 under Robert Cleghorn,  lecturer of Chemistry. This was the same year in which the Chair of Chemistry was founded by King George III, and Thomas Thomson, “the first teacher of practical chemistry”, was appointed.

John Sharp can certainly be considered an advocate of practical chemistry, knowledge which he employed 3 years later upon his arrival in Hamburg. His company would serve the ever increasing demand for “toilet soaps”, and make him his fortune in the booming Hanseatic city. His “chemical stroke of genius” that made him famous came in 1830, when he revolutionised soap making with his invention of  the coconut oil soda soap.

J.S. Douglas Söhne

J.S. Douglas Söhne

The business was a continued success, but Douglas’ untimely death in 1847, meant that his children, from his marriage with the daughter of a Hamburg innkeeper, had to take over.  Theodor Hopff took over management temporarily until two of the sons, Thomas and Alexander, were of age to run the business. Operating as J S Douglas & Söhne since 1850, the sons took over in 1863; Thomas was responsible for the manufacturing and Alexander for the business side, and together they modernised and internationalised the family company.

Advertisement c.1868

Advertisement c.1868

It was only in 1878, with Thomas’ unexplained resignation, that Alexander had to sell the company in order to secure its continued success in an increasingly competitive market, but the new owners, both Hamburg merchants, retained the company name and continued to benefit from the past branding, marketing and reputation of the firm. The Carsten sisters entered into contract with the soap factory in 1910, to use the name Douglas to “establish and operate a business in soaps, perfumery products, and toiletries in Hamburg.” And on 1 June 1910, the sisters opened the “Parfümerie Douglas” on Hamburg’s most expensive shopping boulevard – Neuer Wall – and the 100 year Jubilee was celebrated in 2010 by the company whose proud history started with the soap boiler from Govan.

The Sharp Douglas brothers returned to the place where their grandfather had left in 1820, but what was their story? To be continued….or as they say in German, Fortsetzung folgt

[All Douglas-related images have been provided courtesy of Douglas – except for the teddy bear photograph, which is my own.]



Filed under Europe

3 responses to “German Soap Stars

  1. Lesley Richmond

    What an amazing story.

  2. Greg Pennicuik

    As the great grandson of Thomas through his daughter Mary Adelaide born in Hamburg 1867. I would appreciate other information for the family tree.

    • kamcdonald

      Thank you for getting in touch about your great-grandfather Thomas. The University records for the Sharp Douglas family only hold the basic information as given in the matriculation slips of those who enrolled, therefore only Alexander was mentioned as being the father of John Sharp’s grandsons who enrolled at the University in the 1880/1890s:
      Alexander’s sons resided at Hamburg and Greenock, so the family may have returned to Scotland upon his retirement. Unfortunately we do not have any information on Thomas, but would suggest contacting Douglas Holding AG as their business archives may hold further information on your family.
      Wishing you luck in your continued search.

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