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Around the World in 1908 with Johnson & Johnson

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By Margaret Gurowitz
Dec 12, 2011

Johnson & Johnson opened its first international operating company in Canada in 1919, followed by one in the United Kingdom in 1924.  Our decentralized global expansion continued, and today the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies is made up of more than 250 operating companies in 60 countries.  A Johnson & Johnson employee traveling around the world today would see a Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies presence across the globe.  But what if a Johnson & Johnson employee decided to go around the world back in 1908?  He or she would still see a Johnson & Johnson presence around the world.  How was that possible?  Through the close relationships the Company had with its global sales agents over 100 years ago.

Page from a ledger book belonging to the Gilmour brothers, 1892, from our archives.
Page from a ledger book belonging to the Gilmour brothers, 1892, from our archives.

Let’s join that Johnson & Johnson employee on a trip around the world in 1908.  Our first stop is  Canada, by way of the U.K.  But for our first stop, we need to go back further, to 1888, two years after Johnson & Johnson was founded.  At that time, the Johnson brothers were already building partnerships with sales agents to sell the Company’s products across the world.  Their oldest partnership was with the Gilmour brothers, who became the Johnson & Johnson sales agents in Montreal, Canada.  The relationship with the Gilmours began around 1888-1889 and, by 1919, it had progressed into such a close partnership that they were hired by the Johnson brothers to manage our first international operating company in Canada.

The Gilmour brothers

In the U.K., Johnson & Johnson opened its first operating company in 1924, but in November of 1908, you could find us at the London Medical Exhibition.  Our booth at that event was staffed by the Company’s U.K. sales agents, John Timpson & Company.

The Company also had sales representatives in Germany. The photo below shows one of the representatives from Hamburg, who found a creative way to travel on the Company’s behalf.

One of the Company's European sales agents in 1908, displaying that can-do spirit.

Next stop:  Japan.   Here’s a retail pharmacy in Kobe, Japan in June of 1909.  Alert blog readers will notice the Company’s large and eye-catching cotton ad, hanging at the back of the pharmacy.

Pharmacy in Kobe, Japan in 1908 with Johnson & Johnson ad

The same ad was also spotted in Mexico City, at the offices of the Company’s sales agents.

Our Mexico City sales agents in 1908

At the Bombay Medical Congress in Mumbai, India in early February and March of 1909, Johnson & Johnson was one of only a very few American companies to have an exhibit.  The congress focused on subjects that included infectious disease, some non-communicable diseases, and public health.  Part of the exhibit was a model operating theater, complete with sterile surgical dressings from Johnson & Johnson.   The local newspaper in Mumbai mentioned “ ‘here was housed the finest exhibit of surgical dressings from the Johnson & Johnson laboratories.  These products…were the subject of much discussion.' ”  [THE RED CROSS® MESSENGER Vol I, #12, May 1909, p. 160]

Johnson & Johnson exhibit at the Bombay Medical Congress 102 years ago

Here's a pharmacy in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1908 guessed it...Johnson & Johnson products prominently displayed in the window.

Nova Scotia, Canada pharmacy in 1908

And even in a rural Canadian town called Gowanda that grew up around silver mining, Johnson & Johnson products could be found at the log cabin pharmacy in 1908.

The Company had sales agents traveling through in Egypt as well.  Here’s one of them in October of 1909.

One of the Company's sales agents in Egypt, 1909, with the world-travelling cotton ad.

Potter & Birks, our Australia and New Zealand sales agents, from our archives.

In Australia, where Johnson & Johnson opened an operating company in 1931, the Company’s products had been available since the late 1800s.  In 1908, the sales agents for Australia and New Zealand were Potter & Birks.  To give you an idea of how comprehensively they represented the Company, their 1912 catalog of Johnson & Johnson products available in Australia was an impressive 115 pages in length.

An issue of the RED CHAIN Messenger from 1920

Potter & Birks even published an Australian counterpart of The RED CROSS® Messenger, the Company’s publication for retail pharmacists.  The Australian version was called the RED CHAIN MESSENGER, with Eric Birks as the Australian editor, and Fred Kilmer listed as the American editor.  Like the American edition, the RED CHAIN MESSENGER (named after the distinctive Red Chain logo design on some of the Company’s products outside of the United States, and on the publication’s cover) was designed to help Australasian retain pharmacists build their businesses while educating them about Johnson & Johnson, its products and its philosophy.

Waldron & Dietrich -- our San Francisco sales agents in 1906

In the U.S., the Company’s San Francisco sales agents, Waldron & Dietrich, received special permission to telegraph an appeal to Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick after the April 18, 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.  Their quick action allowed Johnson & Johnson to have railway cars full of products on their way from New Brunswick to San Francisco within hours, marking the official start of our disaster relief program.

Finally, alert Kilmer House readers will by now have picked up on the fact that our sales agents in the U.S. and around the world shared something else with Johnson & Johnson, besides a close relationship, a dedication to making our products available, and a desire to help improve healthcare:  an ampersand in their company names.

Thanks to my colleagues at Johnson & Johnson Australia and New Zealand for the photo of the RED CHAIN Messenger, from the excellent book Johnson & Johnson, 75 Years of Caring, Australia and New Zealand, by Peter Donovan, © Johnson & Johnson, 2006.

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Patricia Rodrigues
DECEMBER 14, 2011 07:20 AM

I am always fascinated with History.
Thank you Margaret for the interesting research. I enjoyed the exhibits.
It transports you to an awesome era

Jenna Greer
DECEMBER 04, 2012 10:20 PM

This was so helpful, I am doing a project for school on Johnson & Johnson and this has helped so much! The layout of the page is designed so nicely as well! Great Job!

Susan Gilmour
JULY 13, 2013 09:09 PM

I am the eldest of three children. My father was John Ross Gilmour and his father was John Lonsdale Gilmour married to Monica Ross ….. just a little bit of history! -

Scott Locker
FEBRUARY 14, 2015 01:54 PM

What a lovely story, thanks.

I was wondering if you might have any more information on the San Francisco agents, Waldron & Dietrich. I own a beautiful boat that one of them owned (built in 1917 in New Jersey, shipped out in 1923 to SF), and would like to complete the genealogy of this classic vessel correctly. Anything you might have which would give a clue would be greatly appreciated.

Most sincerely,

Scott Locker

FEBRUARY 17, 2015 12:02 PM

In reply to by Scott Locker

Hi Scott,

Glad you liked the story! Unfortunately, I don't have any additional information on your boat, but how wonderful that it belonged to either Vernon Waldron or H. D. Dietrich! More and more historical information is being digitized and made available online every year, so you never know what may turn up in your future research. Best of luck in your search!


Christine Stevenson
APRIL 02, 2016 08:53 PM

Hi Margaret
I am interested in the opening of Johnson & Johnson Australia.

I assume that a representative of the company was in Australia to oprn up that t branch. Do you know who that might have been?

APRIL 19, 2016 11:16 AM

In reply to by Christine Stevenson

Hi Christine,

Johnson & Johnson had a longtime sales agent in Australia, a company named Potter & Birks. When the company opened a locally managed operating unit in Australia in 1931, Johnson & Johnson hired a colleague from the Australian sales agents to head the new business.