Meeting the President of the United States is a rare honor. In 2014, a Johnson & Johnson employee had lunch with President Barack Obama as part of the company’s participation in the White House Summit on Working Families. More than a century before that meeting, five working women at Johnson & Johnson met another president, Theodore Roosevelt, as delegates for a Washington, D.C. meeting of employee women’s clubs in 1908.
In 1908, The Laurel Club was just a year old. Chartered in 1907, it had been organized by women employees at Johnson & Johnson with the help of Jean H—-, the general secretary of the National League of Women Workers, who helped women organize similar clubs across the country. At Johnson & Johnson, The Laurel Club provided opportunities for social interaction and education. But with its opportunities for women to hold officer positions in the club, and with its volunteer work in the community, The Laurel Club also gave women employees a place to develop leadership skills. Laurel Club members included Edith von K —, the company’s first woman scientist, members of our first women employees basketball team and women department supervisors.
Five Laurel Club members were chosen as delegates to go to Washington. They were Laurel Club president Nellie R—, Edith von K—, Edith W—, Mary L— and Bessie L—. There must have been a palpable level of excitement both at the Laurel Club headquarters on our New Brunswick campus, and at Johnson & Johnson. For Edith von K —, the trip to meet the President was part of an exciting and eventful two years that included completing her degree in chemistry and moving halfway across the U.S. to work as the first woman scientist at Johnson & Johnson. Now she was on her way to Washington, D.C. with four of her fellow Laurel Club colleagues for a reception at the White House.
The five Laurel Club delegates were set to start on their trip on the morning of Thursday, April 30th, 1908. Delegates from the New Brunswick Girls’ Club also made the trip representing their organization. No doubt they took the train – which figured so prominently in Johnson & Johnson history and which was, in 1908, located as conveniently close to our New Brunswick campus as it is today. Friday and Saturday were the dates of the convention. The Wednesday, April 29, 1908 edition of The New Brunswick Home News reported that the Johnson & Johnson delegation’s first stop was Philadelphia, where a representative from the company’s Philadelphia sales office was standing by to show them the city’s sights.
Once the Johnson & Johnson delegates arrived in Washington, D.C., Friday’s itinerary included a tour of the capitol’s landmarks by rubberneck auto. A rubberneck auto was a small double-decker touring vehicle (basically, a small double decker tour bus), and you can see a photo of one of them from 1911 at this link. After their sightseeing tour, the Laurel Club members had time to change clothing and get ready for the White House reception, which was at 8:00 pm that night.
President Roosevelt greeted the delegation members in the East Room of the White House. Here are some excerpts from his speech that evening:
“Ladies, it is a very real pleasure to greet you here today. I often meet delegations here in the East Room of the White House; all of them I am very glad to see; and I can say with entire truth that there is none that comes here which I could be more pleased to see than this.”
“I think it is highly typical of our people that we should be able to gather together in organizations for social and intellectual betterment; and interested though I am in such organizations of men, I am even more interested when they are managed by and controlled in the interests of women, and particularly working women…”
President Roosevelt ended his talk by wishing them good luck and success in the future.
Theodore Roosevelt, Speech to members of the National League of Women Workers, White House, May 1, 1908, full text at this link.
With outspoken women in his own family — including his daughter Alice and his niece Eleanor (who would become a leader in her own right as First Lady several decades later) — President Roosevelt could not fail to be interested in and inspired by this roomful of women delegates. It’s unlikely that attendees were able to exchange much more than a handshake and greetings with the President. But if they could, the Laurel Club members were exactly the type of take-charge individuals who would have won Roosevelt’s highest approval. They included a woman with a degree in chemistry earning her living as a scientist long before science careers for women were common, some of them supervised departments, they volunteered in the community, and they exercised at work. (Roosevelt had overcome childhood ill-health in part with a program of regular exercise, and he continued to pursue fitness in adulthood, so employees exercising at work would no doubt have met with his most enthusiastic expression of support.)
Saturday morning was the convention meeting. Unfortunately, neither the Chicago Tribune, which covered the White House reception, nor the New Brunswick newspapers reported on what was discussed there. Saturday afternoon was reserved for more sightseeing, and stops included a tour of the White House and its grounds, tours of the Treasury building, the Navy building and the Washington Monument, with a visit to Mt. Vernon – the historic home of George Washington – scheduled for late in the day. After that, no doubt exhausted and exhilarated by the whirlwind schedule, the Laurel Club delegates headed back to New Brunswick. Back at work on Monday, there would have been tremendous interest from their fellow club members and their wider circle of colleagues about the trip.
Four years later, in May of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt came to New Brunswick to give a speech about women’s suffrage as part of his presidential campaign. Having a former President and larger than life figure like Roosevelt (he’s one of the four U.S. Presidents whose face is carved on Mount Rushmore) come to New Brunswick was a huge event, and there is no doubt that many Johnson & Johnson employees – including Laurel Club members – would have been part of the crowd that heard him speak.
Interested readers who want to imagine what it was like for the Laurel Club delegates to listen to the President’s remarks at that 1908 White House visit can hear Theodore Roosevelt’s voice in a rare audio recording of one of his speeches at this link.
In the meantime, the five women from the Laurel Club join the very few Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies employees to have met a President.