By Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center
The founder of one of America’s most profitable family-owned companies, Gerhard Heinrich Mennen, emigrated to New York City in 1871 to make a life for himself at the age of 15.
Born on July 13, 1856, in the German town of Vegsack, Gerhard decided against following the family profession of ship captains and struck out on his own. After checking in with state immigration clerks at Castle Garden and paying a small disembarkation fee, Mennen made his way to one of New York’s German enclaves and found work in an apothecary. The shop’s owner, Emil Luntz quickly recognized the precocious teen’s potential and encouraged him to attend the New York College of Pharmacy.
Upon graduating pharmacy school at age 19, Gerhard Mennen moved across the Hudson River to Hoboken where he worked as a clerk at Fehr’s Pharmacy; the owner let him sleep in a backroom to fill late night prescriptions (while also saving on rent expenses).
Within three years Gerhard had saved enough for a downpayment on his own store, which was on the ground floor of Newark’s bustling Central Hotel. He opened G. Mennen Apothecary on Feb. 15, 1878, at age 22.
In addition to filling prescriptions for busy Newarkers, Mennen began perfecting his formulation for a new baby powder. Based upon a recipe purchased from Mr. Fehr, Gerhard used his New York City contacts to locate a reliable source of fine talc from Italy’s Pinerolo region, which he mixed with an antiseptic and a small amount of oil of roses.
The result was Mennen Borated Talcum Infant Powder, marketed in its signature cylindrical container with an innovative spin-wheel cover that prevented messy spills.
In an era of unregulated products and dishonest snake oil peddlers, Gerhard Mennen staked his reputation on the high quality and effectiveness of his powder by printing his portrait on all packaging.
Mennen also was an early pioneer of mass advertising for branded products. He distributed informative pamphlets, picture cards, and lithographed bookmarks to retailers to include with every purchase, thereby associating his name with the quality and high standards of his products.
Early on, sales and advertising became an integral component of the Mennen business, as he hired musicians to travel the region offering free entertainment, followed by a brief message on the many ailments that his talcum powder was uniquely suited to cure.
When noticing that the billboards advertising traveling circuses and winter theatrical performances went unused in the off-season, Gerhard was among the first retailers to adopt them to boost sales of his products throughout New Jersey.
As the financial Panic of 1893 gave way to greater industrial output and rising standards of living, more Americans could afford pre-packaged convenience products, and Mennen’s business thrived. His talcum powder soon was used by men and women alike.
By 1897 Gerhard acquired property on Orange Street in Newark that served as the growing company’s office, laboratory, and factory for the next 20 years.
In 1882, Gerhard met Elma Korb while dining at her father’s restaurant on nearby Commerce Street. Elma worked as a kindergarten teacher at the German-American School, where she taught the children of many of Newark’s recent immigrants. Elma and Gerhard married and had their daughter, Elma Christina later that year, and in 1884 their son William Gerhard Mennen arrived.
Gerhard Mennen died on Feb. 3, 1902, from blood poisoning and pneumonia at the age of 45, one week after emergency neck surgery. Elma Korb Mennen assumed the role of president and quickly codified the work culture and managerial style that would define the successful company for generations.
Specifically, Elma maintained high standards for the quality of Mennen’s products, established aggressive advertising and distribution systems, and created philanthropic ties to the community.
During her 14-year leadership, Elma Korb Mennen instituted the policy of appointing qualified and trusted family members to key positions. They included her brother, John Korb, who became her assistant.
Mennen expanded its line of products to meet consumer preferences for convenience. For instance, there was tooth powder and borated skin powder, and a wider variety of scented and colored talcum powders.
As the Mennen Company thrived in Newark, Elma purchased a townhome at 727 High St. in one of the city’s poshest districts, known as the Avenue of Millionaires.
Her daughter Elma Christina would marry Henry P. Williams, a Detroit real estate tycoon. Son William attended Cornell University, where he studied to be a mechanical engineer, before Elma convinced him to join the family company by stating: “Will, we make products that give people comfort and happiness. As long as we are in business, this will be our only aim.”
In 1912, William Mennen married Irene Schenk, the daughter of a partner in one of Mennen’s paper suppliers, and they had four children: William, Jr., George, Mildred and Irene. Tragically, Irene Schenk Mennen died from childbirth complications two months after the arrival of her youngest daughter, and only six years after her marriage.
Pregnancy complications were leading causes of death among women, oftentimes leaving the family grief stricken and in shambles. William’s sister-in-law, Lillian Knoepke, stepped in to help raise the surviving children, and moved into Mennen’s South Orange home. She and William married two years later.
William Sr. and Lillian later moved to Montclair, and also purchased 1,000 acres of land in Chester for the construction of Hideaway Farm, where William Mennen became a well-known horse breeder and rider.
Meanwhile, family matriarch Elma K. Mennen continued her tireless expansion of the family business until her death in 1916 at age 80. William Mennen took over as the company’s president and held the position for the next 60 years. William Sr. made numerous early contributions that included developing a separate men’s line of products, such as a neutral talc that did not leave the same white residue or fragrance preferred by women.
William Mennen also invented a shelf-stable shaving cream dispensed from a disposable tube, freeing men from the daily process of preparing lather with a soap cake, shaving brush, and mug.
Mennen’s instant shaving foam worked hand-in-hand with the newly invented safety razor to simplify the morning routines of American men. Similarly, Mennen’s aftershave reduced irritation from shaving and worked as an astringent and antiseptic. Good hygiene and antiseptics were vitally important; in the age before antibiotics, a simple cut could result in dangerous, and even life-threatening, infection.
During World Wars I and II, soldiers used Mennen foot powder to recover from long marches and prevent infection. Mennen’s wartime products included an antidote to mustard gas poisoning that resulted in millions in sales to the United States Government.
To meet rising production demand, the company moved in 1921 from its Orange Street location to a new facility at 345 Central Ave. Export sales flourished after World War I, and Mennen’s domestic sales to mom and pop retailers thrived.
Despite the ongoing challenges of the Great Depression, William Mennen managed to run the business at a profit. The company updated its transportation fleet to include automobiles and aircraft, further cutting shipping times, and utilized modern advertising and marketing techniques.
Mennen shrewdly donated containers of its antiseptic baby oil to hospital nurseries to get new mothers and fathers in the habit of using Mennen products from day one of their newborns’ lives.
As a young adult in 1939, and the third generation of Mennens in America, William Jr. first apprenticed with pharmaceutical companies in Washington D.C. before joining the family company in its manufacturing division.
During World War II, he was drafted and served as a major on General McArthur’s Tokyo staff in 1945 before returning to work in 1947 as vice president of sales. By this point William’s brother George also had joined the company as a plant manager.
The Mennen Company rode the post-World War II economic boom by creating new products like its Baby Magic Skin Care line of lotion. Packaging was color-coded blue for boys and pink for girls (the contents presumably were identical, however).
Furthermore, in 1951, William Mennen Jr. invented spray deodorant, aftershave lotion, electric pre-shave lotion, and Speed-Stick Deodorant for Men. Sales continued to skyrocket and production workers and distributors struggled to keep up with demand.
Demands on production and the need for additional space led William Mennen Sr. to purchase 100 acres of land in Morris Township along East Hanover Avenue for a new headquarters and manufacturing facility. Mennen agreed to hire local residents for any new positions as a means of satisfying Township politicians anxious to generate hometown payroll, and thus, stimulate local business.
The new building’s architects drew inspiration from modern industrial standards of efficiency and form following function. The red brick exterior and glass walls provided clean sight-lines and ample interior lighting. An adjacent two-story wing housed laboratories for product development and testing, as well as packaging and distribution facilities, and a 170,000 square foot warehouse provided ample storage for both raw materials and finished products awaiting shipping.
As construction commenced on the new Township headquarters, production continued at the Newark plant until new sections came online and those departments relocated. Eager to retain its experienced workforce, Mennen offered existing employees bonuses and moving allowances to relocate to Morris County. The company also arranged carpools and paid transportation allowances until bus routes were established for those workers who remained in Essex County.
While most employees stayed with the company, not everyone had the option of moving, due to either preference, age, or policies that prevented people of color from buying homes in certain areas, particularly newly constructed suburbs.
For staff unable to relocate to the Morris Township facility, Mennen asked that they continue working in Newark until moving day in exchange for two weeks bonus pay plus $10 for each year of service with the company.
Eager to prove themselves good neighbors, Mennen opened its doors to Township residents to inspect the newly opened facility during the week of May 11, 1953. The Welcome Committee consisted of the mayors of Morris Township and Morristown, Hanover, and Morris Plains; religious and civic leaders from the area, and other prominent citizens.
Following the opening ceremony, members of the public admired the Hanover Avenue facility’s state of the art lab equipment, spacious layouts for administrative and corporate offices, research and development divisions, and its marketing and advertising spaces.
The plant included modern heating and cooling systems, ample fluorescent lighting and noise-reducing acoustic tiles in manufacturing and packaging areas. There were electric remote-operated doors, onsite rail car loading bays with hydraulic lifts, and a series of safety and emergency equipment in case of accidents.
Many of these improvements greatly improved workers’ safety and welfare by integrating labor saving devices, reducing exposure to pollutants, and decreasing threats from dangerous chemicals.
Thanks in part to greater production efficiency at the Morris Township facility, as well as surging post-war demand for consumer products, Mennen’s sales quadrupled by 1960. Company leaders publicly pledged their loyalty to trusted employees, stating during the 1960 Family Day activities, “We have never laid off a person because a job has been replaced by a machine.” Rather, Mennen used labor saving devices to increase staff productivity.
William Mennen, Jr. retired in 1968, and his brother George Mennen became president. While keeping the company a privately owned “family business,” George intended to run it as a professional and modern public corporation, with a more formal managerial style than previous generations.
By the mid-1970s the Mennen Company set out to become, as stated in one promotional booklet, “A privately held, well-known consumer packaged goods corporation. [Our] products, which are primarily in the Health and Beauty Aids field, are mass advertised and are distributed throughout supermarkets and drugstores in both domestic and international markets.”
During this period Mennen employed more than 1,000 people, with most working to manufacture and sell its health and beauty products. Executives credited the company’s profitability, fueled by its dedicated and efficient workforce, with allowing it to remain a private company despite multiple purchase offers by larger corporations.
New automated packaging and mass production technologies also helped to keep Mennen competitive without the need to cut staff, according to officials.
By the early 1980s, the Mennen Company employed 2,000 people worldwide, yet still maintained the trappings of a family-owned company: Holiday bonuses, days off for good attendance, company picnics, and free Thanksgiving turkeys were all standard perks.
Company management associated good wages and generous benefits with high productivity, superior quality, and thus increased profits. According to historian Alfred Lief, “Pride of performance ensured quality, and quality engendered repeat business.”
Most of Mennen’s employees considered the company an extraordinarily good place to work. Benefits included company-funded retirement pensions, group life insurance, and safety committees to ensure proper working conditions. Staff received paid sick leave, holidays and vacations, and annual Christmas bonuses, in addition to time off for perfect attendance. Mennen’s cafeteria provided enough meals for each of its employees, while keeping costs to a minimum by subsidizing its operation.
The staff organized company-sponsored dances, outings, and morale-boosting contests. Everyone also was eligible to join the Mennen Employee’s Association, which threw an annual Christmas party, bestowed wedding and birthday gifts, conveyed congratulations to new parents, and condolences to those with deaths in the family. Membership in the Association was free, and its activities were covered from vending machine sales and coffee breaks.
Employee benefits reflected a patrician management style that considered well paid and well treated employees not only more productive, but less likely to quit or strike for better working conditions. Mennen’s business philosophy seems to have paid off, as profits throughout the 20th century continued to grow. When given the option in 1954, workers voted against unionization.
Philanthropic efforts by the Mennen family started in the early 1900s, and included disaster aid to both local and overseas communities struck by floods, war, and disease. When local retailers lost their inventory to natural disasters, Mennen replaced their stock so they could remain in business. William G. Mennen was especially interested in supporting local hospitals, most notably those in Newark, the company’s home for 75 years.
When asked about the company’s philanthropic activities in 1966, William Mennen Jr. replied: “We are, after all, a part of the community. We believe in being good neighbors and we put this belief into action.”
In Morris County, George Mennen donated 36 acres of land to the Morris County Parks Commission in 1967, and in 1975 dedicated the William G. Mennen Sports Arena. Since relocating to the Township in 1953, Mennen provided more than $800,000 in college scholarships to local high school graduates who otherwise would not be able to afford tuition.
Morris County Parks Commission ad featuring the William G. Mennen Sports Arena
Donald Horne became the first non-family member elected as Mennen’s CEO and board chairman in 1977, with G. L. Mennen serving as president of international operations, and John Henry Mennen working in manufacturing.
As the fourth generation of Mennens took roles within the company during the 1980s, they were deciding whether to maintain it as a family-owned company or seek a partnership with a larger corporate entity.
Family ownership of the 114-year old company ended in early 1992 when New York-based Colgate-Palmolive purchased Mennen for $670 million. Mennen framed this acquisition as a necessary step for making inroads into the international market.
At the time, Mennen generated $550 million in annual sales with its 3,000 employees (1,000 of whom worked in in Morris Township), whereas Colgate produced $6 billion in sales with its 24,000 employees.
Under the deal orchestrated by L. Donald Horne and managed by Goldman Sachs, 80 percent of the purchase price was offered in stock with the other $134 million paid in cash. Each of the family’s four branches acquired 5 percent of Colgate’s stock. Speaking to the Daily Record on Feb. 14, 1992, Horne promised to retain as many jobs as possible.
“I don’t see any great concern that they [Colgate] will dismantle everything,” he said. Having worked for Mennen since 1970, and as its only non-family chief executive since 1981, Horne retired at age 58 to pursue other interests.
“By Mennen…” was the company’s well-known trademark heard in this 1990s television commercial staring actor Jack Palance.
Colgate gained the valuable “By Mennen” slogan, and its even more valuable reputation for quality products, especially in the lucrative baby care and deodorant brands. In closing, Mennen CEO, L. Donald Horne wistfully noted, “This puts an end to the Mennen family tradition. But this will ensure that the Mennen name will continue. I think the family is proud their name will always be out there.”
In 2013, Colgate-Palmolive announced it would close the Morris Township facility in 2016, with plans to move some employees to other production facilities within and outside of New Jersey, while laying off several hundred others.
Today, the former Mennen site is under development for townhomes and retail businesses. The William G. Mennen Sports Arena stands as one symbol of the Mennen family’s generosity to New Jersey, and one of the few remaining structures built by the 114-year company.
- Ermaline R. Weiss, “The House of Mennen: From Cobblestone Beginnings, a Family Whose Name is its Distinctive Worldwide Reputation”, Morris County, Vol 2 No. 4, Winter 1983, pp 24-54
- Alfred Lief, The Mennen Story, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.; New York, 1954
- The Mennen Company Commemorates the 50th Anniversary of William G. Mennen, 1908-1958, Morris Township, NJ; The Mennen Company, 1958
- “The Mennen Company: Family Day” pamphlet, June 18, 1960
- “Mennen Worldwide,” booklet, The Mennen Company, Hanover Ave., Morris Township NJ, ca.1977
- North Jersey History & Genealogy Center – Vertical Files
- North Jersey History & Genealogy Center – Historic Newspaper Collection
- North Jersey History & Genealogy Center – Historic Photograph Collection
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