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The Anniversary of Our First Building!

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By Margaret Gurowitz
Jan 08, 2009

Artist's Rendering of First Johnson & Johnson Building

Artist’s Rendering of the First Johnson & Johnson Building

The beginning of January 2009 marks 123 years since James Wood Johnson got off a New York to Philadelphia train in New Brunswick, New Jersey to rent space for a new company:  Johnson & Johnson.  Here’s the story:

James Wood Johnson

James Wood Johnson

It was very early January of 1886…the first or second week of the month, 123 years ago.  James Wood Johnson, one of the founders of the Company, was a passenger on a Pennsylvania Railroad train going from New York to Philadelphia.  He and his brothers, Robert Wood Johnson and Edward Mead Johnson, had left their previous firm, the respected medical products business Seabury & Johnson (Robert Wood Johnson was the “Johnson” in the firm’s name).


Robert Wood Johnson  Edward Mead Johnson

Robert Wood Johnson (L) and Edward Mead Johnson (R)

James Wood Johnson had resigned his position as superintendent of manufacturing at Seabury & Johnson on July 18, 1885, the same day his older brother Robert left his partnership in the business.  Now, in 1886, with Robert prohibited from re-entering the medical products business under the terms of his agreement with former partner George Seabury, James and Mead were looking to start a medical products company on their own.  (Fortunately for patients and consumers everywhere, their interim idea for an office machinery business – developing a new and improved typewriter -- didn’t work out, and they were determined to return to the field that held their interests and abilities.)

Johnson & Johnson Plaster Making Machinery, 1912

Plaster Making Machinery at Johnson & Johnson, 1912.

James was a talented engineer whose medicated plaster-making machinery had solved a number of manufacturing problems at Seabury & Johnson, and he was looking to bring that expertise to his and his brother Mead’s new business…which they were going to name Johnson & Johnson.  James would set up the manufacturing.  Edward Mead Johnson would handle sales for the new firm.   All they needed was a location.

As the New York to Philadelphia train slowed down to stop in New Brunswick that January day in 1886, James Wood Johnson noticed a “To Let” sign on a four-story former wallpaper factory next to a spur of the railroad tracks.  The building had belonged to Janeway & Carpender, a wallpaper manufacturer that had moved to larger quarters several blocks away.

Former Janeway and Carpender Four-Story Wallpaper Factory

The first Johnson & Johnson building, perhaps as James Wood Johnson would have seen it in 1886.  The side of the building reads, in part, “Janeway & Carpender, Manufacturers of Wallpaper.”  (Click on the photo to enlarge it to its full size,and you'll see the stone wall that's still there today.)  Photo courtesy of the New Brunswick Free Public Library’s postcard collection.  Here’s the link to the original photo on the site.

So James Wood Johnson got off the train and rented the fourth floor of the building, and Johnson & Johnson has been at roughly the same location in New Brunswick ever since.

Article about Johnson & Johnson opening in 3/3/1886 New Brunswick Times

March 3, 1886 Story from The New Brunswick Times:  "A New Factory"

New Brunswick turned out to be a good place for the new business.  It was midway between New York and Philadelphia, had rail and water transportation, and a number of industries already in place.  Some of those industries, like the cigar box manufacturer and the fruit jar manufacturer, would supply packaging to Johnson & Johnson for some of its early products.  By mid-summer of 1886, Robert Wood Johnson was able to re-enter the medical products business due the lapsing of his agreement with former partner George Seabury.  Johnson wasted no time in joining Johnson & Johnson as its president, bringing with him his business talent, much-needed capital and his determination to manufacture a revolutionary new product:  the first ever mass-produced sterile surgical dressings.

We know exactly where the first Johnson & Johnson building was, thanks to a precisely detailed map from 1886 done by the Sanborn Map Company of Pelham, New York.  The Sanborn Map Company produced detailed maps of 12,000 cities and towns in the U.S., Canada and Mexico to help fire insurance agencies determine the level of hazard associated with each property in a given town or city.  And in an incredible stroke of good fortune, there just happens to be a Sanborn Fire Insurance map for New Brunswick, New Jersey for 1886, the year Johnson & Johnson started.   And it shows the exact location of the Johnson brothers’ building, with the legend “to be Johnson’s Porous Plaster Mfy.”

Here’s the link to the map showing the location of our first building.   Just scroll down on the map, and the building is shown in pink right next to the number 43, in the area bounded by George and Hamilton Streets. (Businesses are pink on the map; residences yellow.)

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