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From Factories to Corporate Parks: Morris County and the Wealth Belt – Morristown Green

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By Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center

View of Newark and the Morris Canal, ca.1867. While Morristown enjoyed a bustling downtown during the mid-19th century, much of Morris County remained agricultural in nature. Anyone wanting to do business and build their fortune headed to big cities, where ideas, capital, and labor intersected. Photo courtesy of The Newark Museum.

From the Civil War through World War II, cities generated the vast majority of the Garden State’s wealth, thus attracting the lion share of investment, skilled workers, as well as its factories, commercial establishments, and entertainment venues. In 1909 the City of Newark alone employed over 20% of the entire state’s population and was the source ¼ of all wages earned within the state.

R.B. Jolly radio store, Oct 1, 1931. Downtown storefronts with colorful window displays that tempted pedestrians dominated Morris County’s retail landscape in an era before department stores and shopping malls. Curtiss Photo Collection, North Jersey History & Genealogy Center. 

After World War II, new home construction gravitated towards cheaper and more abundant suburban land, and while most heavy industry remained anchored in large cities, by the 1960s companies began opening satellite offices, or moved their headquarters, to suburban office parks.

Glick and Son store on Speedwell Ave., 1938. Even 150 years before online shopping, Americans could place a call to Sears Roebuck & Co. and have anything from a pair of work gloves to entire furniture sets delivered to their front door. However, most retailers still valued prominent stores located near where their customers lived. Curtiss Photo Collection, NJHGC. 

This migration away from urban cores resulted from numerous factors, including changing manufacturing trends, lower property tax rates, and rising inequality and social unrest. Passage of the National Highway Act of 1956 further encouraged residential and business development away from cities and into previously agricultural land.

Railroads, street trolleys, and highways broadened one’s shopping options, but automobile traffic and competition for limited parking spaces could make shopping downtown problematic. Curtiss Photo Collections, NJHGC.

As suburban counties attracted new businesses and workers, the construction of Interstates 80 and 287 helped create a suburban “wealth belt” from Northeast to central New Jersey that benefited from all aspects of America’s post-industrial economy. From the 1960s through the 1970s, Morris County’s corporate parks manufactured electronics, petrochemicals, aviation instruments, and pharmaceuticals. During this period, the “wealth belt” grew to employ 50% of all workers in the state; overall, 2.1 million individuals now worked in Bergen, Passaic, Morris, Somerset, Union, Middlesex, and Monmouth counties.

Warner-Lambert’s campus as it appeared in 1959. NJHGC Photo Collections.

Warner-Lambert was the first corporate enterprise to move its headquarters to Morris County when it relocated from Brooklyn to Morris Plains in 1947. Here, the company developed and manufactured medical devices and consumer products such as Listerine, cough syrups, antacids, chewing gum, mints, and other products generating sales of $1.25 billion in 1970, and by 1983 it staff of 3,000 made it one of the county’s largest employers.

The Mennen Company on East Hanover Avenue, 1987. NJHGC Photo Collections. 

The Mennen Company found its start as a Newark drugstore opening in 1878 on the corner of Broad Street and Central Avenue. The small business made a name for itself marketing high-quality talcum powder sold in a convenient metal container with a shaker built into the lid. As the company grew, Mennen moved its headquarters in 1953 to a modern Morristown facility that manufactured deodorant, shampoo, aftershave, fragrances, and baby powder. Mennan remained a family company through the early 1980s, and prided itself on valuing its 2,000 employees as much as the quality of its products.

As corporations flocked to Morris County, main streets flourished from the additional traffic and revenue. In 1948, businesses at this Elm and South Street building sold everything from radios, plate glass, and clothing to soda. NJHGC Photo Collections.

The Thomas Leeming Company began as a small manufacturer of antiseptic and analgesic ointment originally developed by Parisian Doctor Bengue, which Leeming purchased the rights to and marketing it in the United States as Ben-Gay Ointment. After moving to Parsippany from Union City in 1958, the Leeming Company merged with Pfizer in 1961. By 1982, Pfizer sales surpassed $100 million with products ranging from Barbasol saving cream to Visine eye drops, and numerous medical products. A series of mergers and acquisitions over the following decades made Pfizer one of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturers, with 2018 revenue of over $53 billion.

AT&T’s corporate plaza as it appeared in 1987. NJHGC Photo Collection. 

By 1980, the list of companies migrating westward from New York City to establish headquarters or satellite offices in Morris County included: AT&T, Exxon, Nabisco, Silver Burdett Co., Weichert Realtors, Artisan Electronics, Allied Chemical and Dye Corp., and 40 other Fortune 500 companies. Through this decade these companies created over 173 million square feet of new office space in suburban north and central New Jersey.

A typical Morris Township office park in 1987. NJHGC Photo Collection.

Corporate parks and light manufacturing defined Morris County’s industrial base for decades even as individual companies merged with larger corporations, or continued to pursue new manufacturing technologies and alternate labor forces elsewhere. Some businesses like Weichert Realtors, Novartis, and GAF Materials Corporation continue to operate in the area. The site of other longtime companies like Morristown’s Mennen facility and Morris Township’s Honeywell campus have found a new life as mixed residential and retail developments.

Sources:

  • Joseph A. Grabas, Owning New Jersey: Historic Tales of War, Property Disputes, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014
  • Maxine Lurie and Richard Viet, eds. New Jersey: A History of the Garden State, Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, 2012
  • Dorrianne R. Perrucci, Morris County: the Progress of Its Legend, Woodland Hills, CA; Windsor Publications, 1983
  • The collections of the North Jersey History & Genealogy Center, Morristown & Morris Township Library

The Changing Landscape of Morris County“, is on view through 2019 in the F.M. Kirby Gallery on the second floor of the Morristown & Morris Township Library.

For a behind the scenes look at our collections and additional information on New Jersey history, follow us on Twitter @NJHistoryCenter and on Tumblr at njhgc.tumblr.com.