James S. Kirk, a native of Scotland who grew up in Montreal, moved his soap manufacturing business (James S. Kirk & Company) from Utica, New York to Chicago in 1859. In 1867, he set up a large new plant on North Water Street. In 1870, this facility employed about 30 men and 20 children and made nearly $600,000 worth of soap during the year. By 1880, the North Water Street plant was one of world's largest soap factories, with machinery driven by steam engines, a workforce of 250, and an annual output worth over $2 million. By the turn of the century, when there were close 600 workers at Kirk's factory, it made about 100 million pounds of soap per year, and was the biggest soap producer in the United States. In 1929, the North Water Street plant was demolished, and the remnants of the company were sold to Procter & Gamble of Cincinnati.
The company marketed over 50 perfumes and soaps between 1893 and 1925. “Jap Rose,” now an incredibly offensive name given the product featured a picture of a Japanese woman, dated from 1918, and was Kirk’s most prominent perfume, and was one of the significant products mentioned as prompting Procter and Gamble’s purchase of the company.