By Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center
From the Civil War through World War II, cities generated the vast majority of the Garden State’s wealth, thus attracting the lion’s share of investment and skilled workers, as well as its factories, commercial establishments, and entertainment venues.
In 1909, the City of Newark alone employed over 20 percent of the entire state’s population and was the source of one-fourth of all wages earned in New Jersey.
After World War II, new home construction gravitated towards cheaper and more abundant suburban land. 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.
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.
As suburban counties attracted new businesses and workers, the construction of Interstates 80 and 287 helped create a suburban “wealth belt” from northeastern to central New Jersey, which 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 percent 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 was the first corporate enterprise to move its headquarters to Morris County, relocating 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. By 1983, its staff of 3,000 made it one of the county’s largest employers.
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 Morris Township facility that manufactured deodorant, shampoo, aftershave, fragrances, and baby powder. Mennen 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.
The Thomas Leeming Company began as a small manufacturer of antiseptic and analgesic ointments originally developed by Parisian Doctor Bengue. Leeming purchased the rights to market 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 medical products to Barbasol shaving cream to Visine eye drops.
A series of mergers and acquisitions in following decades made Pfizer one of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturers, with 2018 revenue of more than $53 billion.
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 more than 173 million square feet of office space in suburban north and central New Jersey.
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, such as Weichert Realtors, Novartis, and GAF Materials Corporation, continue to operate in the area. The site of other longtime companies, like Morris Township’s Mennen facility and Honeywell campus, have found a new life as mixed residential- and retail developments.
- 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.