New Brunswick, New Jersey is known for many things…such as Rutgers University, two major hospitals, and of course it’s been the home of Johnson & Johnson since 1886. But did you know that at one time New Brunswick was known as “the most Hungarian city in the United States?” And that many members of its Hungarian community worked at Johnson & Johnson?
Johnson & Johnson employees, many of whom were from the Hungarian community, circa 1900
New Brunswick’s historic Hungarian population is still reflected in some of the city’s neighborhoods, its American Hungarian Foundation, in its annual Hungarian Festival, in the ties between New Brunswick and its sister city in Hungary, Debrecen, and in the history of Johnson & Johnson…which at one time had an employee population that was more than two-thirds Hungarian.
Page from Early Workmen's Time Book Showing Hungarian Last Names of Employees
Here’s an example -- a page from an old Johnson & Johnson ledger book from 1914-1915 showing that in just the Bleaching Department in the old Cotton Mill, there were employees with the last names Farkanyi, Horvath, Harsanyi, Kovacs, Polgar, Mezarous, Erdelyi, Toth and, on another page, Dudas, all a proud reminder of the Company’s close ties with New Brunswick’s Hungarian population.
U.S. Medicated Plaster Ad in Hungarian, 1912
Hungarian immigrants first started arriving in the U.S. in large numbers around 1850, after Hungary’s defeat in the 1848-1849 War of Independence, in which Hungary tried to gain self-rule from Austria. Large numbers of Hungarians settled in New Jersey and especially in New Brunswick, which had lots of industry to provide employment. Besides Johnson & Johnson, there was a cigar box manufacturer (which explains why many of our early medicated plasters were in cigar-box packaging…we bought the boxes from the neighboring factory), a button factory, a wallpaper factory, and more. Over the years, successive waves of immigrants from Hungary continued to make their way to New Brunswick until more than a third of the city’s population was of Hungarian descent.
Early Employees, Many of them from New Brunswick's Hungarian Community
The Johnson family felt a strong tie to the Hungarian immigrants, who were hardworking and extremely loyal to Johnson & Johnson. Many Hungarian employees wrote to their relatives telling them about the Company…and many of those relatives came to New Brunswick to work for Johnson & Johnson. It was not unusual for several members of the same extended family – parents, aunts and uncles -- and also multiple generations in the same family to work for Johnson & Johnson. One retiree of Hungarian descent has said that when she was growing up in New Brunswick’s Hungarian community, it seemed to her that everyone worked for Johnson & Johnson. The story has also been passed down that employee notices were once posted in English and Hungarian to accommodate employees.
Bottom of 1908 Cotton Mill Celebration Dance Card with “Good Night" in Hungarian and other languages.
Johnson & Johnson provided English lessons and other classes for its Hungarian and other employees, as well as very generous benefits at a time when it was unusual to do so.
Robert Wood Johnson, Approx. 16 Years Old
General Robert Wood Johnson was particularly close to the Company’s employees of Hungarian heritage, often accepting invitations to their homes, to weddings and other celebrations. This relationship started when Johnson was just a teenager and came to work in the factory during the summers and then full time after his father died. He was befriended by his Hungarian coworkers as they worked side by side, and the relationship continued through his adult life.
To this day, the Company continues to have a number of New Jersey employees and retirees of Hungarian descent….a relationship that still continues a century later.
Update – I forgot to mention that the title of this post, “Hungarian University,” was a nickname given to Johnson & Johnson because of its large percentage of Hungarian employees. The Company’s generous benefits and steady employment at a time when that was uncommon offered great opportunity for members of the Hungarian community who worked there.