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Cleaning Up L.A.--Till the Bubble Burst

Although Ivory Soap generally is conceded to be the soap that gave American housewives soft skin, Los Angeles’ own “house” brand, White King D, offered homemakers much more--cleaner clothes.

The words “White King” once had a magic ring, and it wasn’t around the collar.

Young Angelenos in the late 1940s and early ‘50s wouldn’t dare miss an episode of “Chandu the Magician,” the radio serial that plugged White King for its manufacturer and the show’s sponsor, the Los Angeles Soap Co., which cleaned up California and the West for more than 130 years.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, radio and TV audiences laughed, cried and ate their hearts out on weekday afternoons during “Queen for a Day"--originally sponsored by White King D--which rewarded the saddest tales of woe with a queen’s ransom of appliances and furnishings.

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But for housewives in 22 states, White King meant an inexpensive, efficient line of laundry and cleaning soaps--the country’s first powdered soap--along with the first bleaches and fabric softeners to be sold in grocery stores.

For more than a century, the scents wafted over the City of Angels from the soap company’s plant, which occupied a one-block site east of downtown.

The White King story began as the nation was marching toward the Civil War. In 1860, 17-year-old, German-born John A. Forthmann rolled into the pueblo of Los Angeles, a city of opportunity that suited a teenager who had missed his ship as it left Germany, and swum doggedly to catch it until the crew lowered a boat to retrieve him.

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Forthmann bought a small soap business in a shack at 2nd and Spring streets, and characteristically, soon doubled its output.

By the coolness of night he sweated over boiling vats of animal fat and lye. During the heat of day he peddled his harsh yellow soap around town, selling from a wheelbarrow and in turn providing the city with an early environmental service: collecting cooking fats from housewives, and pork and meat scraps from restaurants and boardinghouses to recycle into soap.

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As the city’s population grew, so did the soap trade. By 1874, he moved the plant to a wooden building surrounded by orange groves and standing close to the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railway, from which he would build a thriving trade shipping soap around the West.

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As the soap company prospered, Forthmann purchased building after nearby building and converted each to his needs, eventually extending it for blocks. The brick buildings were interlaced by endless lengths of pipe, conveyors and other industrial trappings.

Back then, soap was soap. It washed clothes, hair and dishes. Baths were rare and traditionally the family wash was done once a month. But the boon to soap came in the late 1880s, when architects began designing homes with indoor plumbing. One of the most spectacular was a 4,200-square-foot, 11-room Italianate-style Victorian, built for the Forthmann family. (It would later be donated to USC; the USC Real Estate Development Co. now uses it as its headquarters).

But the soap business was cleaning up in Cincinnati too. The demand for Procter & Gamble’s new white air-puffed floating soap called Ivory made Forthmann decide to duplicate it.

With a mixture of science and serendipity, Forthmann and chemist Frank H. Merrill triumphantly created their product in 1907. Like Ivory, Forthmann’s air-injected cake of soap floated rather than melting to mush. It also cleaned better at lower temperatures, which meant housewives no longer had to boil clothes.

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But it was also more expensive than the yellow soap, and until after World War II, the company would make both types: cheaper, animal-fat soap, and costlier, floating soap with vegetable oil.

After World War I, the nation’s first granulated laundry detergent, White King D (for detergent), rolled off the production line.

Although Forthmann’s gamble had paid off handsomely, he remained a traditionalist. By 1922, the last year of his life, the city streets were clogged with autos. But at 79, he was still driving to work in a buggy, and hitching his horse to an iron ring mounted in the brick factory wall under a sign that read: “No Parking.”

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The firm stayed in the Forthmann family, and during the Depression the company kept most jobs by arranging shorter shifts. Homemakers earned pocket money for dropping off their grease drippings. But the pungent odors from rancid fat were so overpowering that neighbors complained, and by the late 1940s, the company stopped making soap from animal fats.

(One decades-old rumor maintained that gangsters had killed a couple of troublesome crooks and dumped the bodies in the rendering vats, but it was just a rumor.)

In 1950, the company’s biggest problem was the city’s problem, too: pollution. However agreeable the soap smelled, the fumes helped put an eye-stinging pall over the city.

So in 1960, Forthmann’s grandson Andrew K. Forthmann put more than $1 million into the plant, adding new equipment that boosted production, with a 110-foot detergent-making tower designed to eliminate polluting emissions.

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Growth and advertising were like one hand washing the other. The company sponsored the popular radio show “Chandu the Magician,” in which the hero Chandu and his friends fought the forces of evil--dirt--to bring cleaner clothes to the West. And the company aimed at the hearts of housewives with the tearful travails of “Queen for a Day.”

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With business booming, the company tried to go national in 1967. A factory it opened on the East Coast closed within a year. Fierce competition in the billion-dollar household soap and detergent business from such makers as Procter & Gamble was making it harder to maintain a niche on crowded supermarket shelves. Customers who once bought loyally from four generations of Forthmanns were being lured away by new brands.

By the time the plant closed in 1987, only a few employees remained of the hundreds who had once marked their days by the steam whistle that signaled lunch hours and shift changes.

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The land, now part of Little Tokyo, is vacant, except for one corner leased as a parking lot.

The entire site was purchased from the soap company by the Evergreen shipping conglomerate for a planned hotel. The project was aborted several years later after the company was caught trying to influence local politics in a money-laundering scheme.

The last visual reminder of 130 years of local saponification went down the drain when the old, ornate smokestack bearing the painted legend “White King” was demolished in 1987.


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