In the late 1870s Eleusis (or Lepsina as it was then called) was a small seaside community standing among the ruins of the old illustrious sanctuary of Demeter. The majority of the houses were old and dilapidated; most of them were little more than peasant cottages. With the exception of the main thoroughfare near the coast, the streets were crooked dirt-roads full of stones and rubble from collapsing walls on either side. And yet Eleusis was also full of hope, inspired by the construction of the railroad that would eventually connect Piraeus and Patras. The community would be one of the major railway stops on this line, as demonstrated by the impressive station building.
There were other reasons for optimism as well. The distribution of national farms to landless farmers resulted in a significant increase of production. Currants, tobacco, and cotton became good sources of income for poor peasants, while the export of the surplus improved public finances by an increase in customs revenue. The state also took measures to encourage industrial development through the introduction of tariffs on imported goods, with the exception of machinery and raw materials. Finally, the government seemed intent on improving the national transportation network. The railroad was a crucial first step, but there were also attempts to expand the woefully inadequate road network and, even more impressively, to approve major engineering works such as the Corinth Canal.
The brothers from Galați
Members of the Greek diaspora were eager to take advantage of these new opportunities. Lysander and Emmanuel Charilaou were brothers from Galați, where the Greek community was actively involved in the local economy. They came to Greece in the early 1870s and settled in Athens. Soon, though, they realized that Eleusis offered them greater prospects. There were already some small, family-owned, local soap factories, while the expansion of the railroad and access to the sea were crucial factors. They felt that there was ample room for growth here, and decided to establish their own soap factory in 1875. They partnered with the powerful merchant house of Rallis and brought a French overseer and director, who could assist them with his technical expertise.
The Charilaou soap factory remained a fairly small enterprise (approximately 20 employees) until 1892, when Epameinondas Charilaos, a chemist who had studied in France and Germany, collaborated with another chemist, Nikolaos Kanellopoulos to take over the factory. By 1900 the enterprise employed 90 workers (including a small number of women) and produced 640,000 kilos of soap. A good portion of this production (160,000 kilos) was exported by sea to various Mediterranean countries, while the “soap of Eleusis” competed in the national market against the dominant Marseille soap.
Epameinondas was passionate about his factory. He lived there for five years, spending endless hours training the workers or teaching them how to read and write. He was also involved in laboratory experiments and research, putting his life at risk in order to improve the final product. In the words of a journalist, he is “a battery pack that knows what he wants, what he does, where he is going, and above all else, he knows how to manage people, affairs, workloads and tasks”.
By 1928 the “E. Charilaos – N. Kanellopoulos” soap factory employed 250 workers. It produced a wide array of commodities including olive-pomace oil, cotton-seed oil, linseed oil, coconut fat, green soap, animal feed, glycerol etc. The compound covered approximately two hectares and consisted of 23 buildings organized around two distinct operations: the production of soap (in the factory’s northeast corner) and the oil refinery (in the middle of the northeast side). The administration building is located next to the main entrance, while the 28 cylindrical storage units were placed against the compound’s west wall.
The end…and a new beginning
The factory survived the hardships of the Second World War and received a loan for US$100,000 in the context of the financial assistance provided to Greece by the United States in 1948. But soon the company seems to have run into insurmountable troubles. In the late 1960s it ceased operations, while the building and the land were acquired by the National Bank of Greece. The machinery was removed but the buildings survive in fairly good conditions. These days the Palaio Elaiourgeio (Old Soap Factory), as is affectionately known, has become the venue for the Aeschylia Festival, one of the longest-standing cultural festivals in Greece.