If A Train Leaves Chicago...
The old Temple Radio Plant in Chicago
It’s 1933 -- the depths of the Great Depression. The economy is struggling, the U.S. has a staggering 25% unemployment rate, and the New Deal legislation is in its early stages. Most of American industry is cutting back. But for Johnson & Johnson, it’s time to open a plant in Chicago.
Like everywhere else, Chicago had been hit hard by the Depression, but 1933 did hold some bright spots. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry opened in 1933. Chicago hosted the World’s Fair that year, highlighting a century of progress, and the first All Star baseball game was played at Comisky Park, with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in the lineup. Ruth hit the first ever All Star Game home run, and his team won the game.
But, still…why did Johnson & Johnson open a major Midwestern plant during the worst of the Depression, and why in Chicago?
The founding Johnson brothers (from left, Robert Wood Johnson, James Wood Johnson, Edward Mead Johnson) who began the Company’s tradition of managing for the long term.
One of the many Johnson & Johnson traditions going all the way back to our founding in 1886 is prudent long-term management of the Company. As a result, Johnson & Johnson was able to not only weather the financial crises of 1893, 1907 and 1929, but it came out stronger each time. This philosophy was combined with the demand for the Company’s medical and consumer products, which had changed the way surgery was practiced and gave consumers a growing number of safe, reliable products they could use in the home. So although Johnson & Johnson did have to tighten its belt during the Depression, it was in a good position to continue its steady and responsible growth. Another big factor in the decision to open the Chicago plant was summed up best by Robert Wood Johnson: “…we were developing new ideas, new machines, new processes, new ways of doing things. These called for more than additional space; they demanded a new factory in which we could develop and test departures from old, established methods.” [Robert Johnson Talks It Over, Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, NJ, 1949, chapter 17, “Johnson & Johnson, Chicago”, p. 65]
Robert Wood Johnson, circa 1930s
Robert Wood Johnson, son of the founder by the same name, was in his second year of leading the Company. He was putting in place his philosophy of decentralization, which could be summed up as: “Be as local as you can be.” Johnson – and Robert Hayden, the Company’s vice president of manufacturing at the time -- wanted Johnson & Johnson to be seen as a local Midwestern business, part of the community there and not as some firm from back East that people really didn’t know all that well. Besides, Chicago was one of the country’s major railroad and highway hubs, which would help the Company ship its products out West much faster and more efficiently. The Company already had a small suture plant in Chicago, and the general manager of that plant was enlisted to help find a good location. I’ll let Robert Wood Johnson describe what happened:
“…sites and factories were easy to find, but we were planning for the future, not merely for 1933. We therefore continued our search until we found a location that would give us what we needed for many years to come. We discovered it in the Clearing Industrial District, a modern development in the southwestern part of Chicago. The site had plenty of space – several acres – and a good one-story factory with a fine, imposing entrance. There was also a modern office building that seemed to be just right for our needs.” [Robert Johnson Talks It Over, Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, NJ, 1949, chapter 17, “Johnson & Johnson, Chicago”, p. 66]
Our historic Chicago Operations
Here’s a picture of the site they chose. The main building was the former Temple Radio plant and you can see from that photo that it had great art-deco architectural features, including the “fine, imposing entrance” that so impressed Robert Wood Johnson.
Hundreds of unemployed Chicagoans lined up in front of the plant to find jobs, and a number of them were hired to work at the new Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies facility. When a brochure on the Chicago plant’s history was published in 1968, many of those Depression-hired employees were still there.
Nine Chicago employees in 1970 who were with the Company since the plant opened in 1933
The new Chicago plant proved to be so efficient that its first product line (MODESS® Sanitary Napkins) was in production just one month after workers were hired and the plant opened. During World War II, the Company’s Midwestern plant made an enormous contribution to the war effort, which was recognized by its earning of an Army-Navy “E” Award for Excellence. The plant also supported Bond Drives and other efforts during the war.
Employees in Chicago Celebrate Earning an Army-Navy “E” Flag During World War II
The Chicago facility lived up to its mission of providing a place to try new things, and it was one of the first Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies locations to enter the computer age in 1964 with the installation of a massive IBM computer with a card system. In 1967, that was upgraded to an IBM Model 360 Tape-Disk-Tele-Processing Computer that was dubbed a “miracle of electronics” because it could run three different programs at the same time. One of the things it did was run the quality control system, which became a standard for the Company and earned Johnson & Johnson a late 1960s recognition by the American Quality Control Association as a leader in the quality control field.
Part of the Chicago facility in 1968 – home to a “miracle of electronics” computer!
At its height, the Chicago operations occupied eleven buildings producing 492 products, with a major Midwestern shipping center for the Company. It was the site of many developments in engineering, operations, and quality assurance programs for Johnson & Johnson and it pioneered electronic records keeping for the Company – something we take for granted today, but which was new when it was introduced in Chicago over four decades ago -- with those room-sized computers.