The following article originally appeared in a 50th Anniversary New Jersey Chamber of Commerce publication in 1961.
Thomas Greenwood, Passaic lawyer, spent much of the year 1911 riding trains across New Jersey, knocking on doors of the state’s business leaders, and, when the unpredictable telephone worked, talking to important strangers.
Each day he jotted down expenses; during the year he spent $365, a sum voluntarily shared by five men with a vision that New Jersey needed a state Chamber of Commerce.
Consider those five founders:
Arthur S. Corbin, Passaic banker (who would in time become known as “The Father of the State Chamber”); P.J. Hover, Ridgewood realtor; William Lambert, Nutley realtor; Arthur Johnson, Passaic Board of Trade, and George B. Corsa, Bound Brook businessman.
The quintet invested their money ($73 each the first year), but Greenwood was the workhorse. He spread the word, particularly that the new group was not just another private North Jersey scheme.
Greenwood called on owners of brick works, hotel owners in Atlantic City and Cape May, glassworks entrepreneurs in Cumberland County, tomato canners in Salem and Camden, operators of coal and lumber yards – as well as bankers, insurance executives and mine owners.
Why was he calling?
Officially, he was pushing “the need for an instrument to represent business and manufacturing interests…and seek a permanent plan for publicity to advocate the advantages of New Jersey for home seekers, manufacturers and others” (the official pronouncement of the self-appointed founding committee).
Greenwood quite likely also brought up whenever possible the implications of what appeared to be a rising anti-business sentiment within both state and nation.
Woodrow Wilson, disappointing his conservative backers, had turned liberal after inauguration as New Jersey Governor in 1911. Laws were brewing in the state legislature to end New Jersey’s dubious national reputation as “The Mother of Trusts.”
The Supreme Court had stunned the business community by ordering a breakup of Standard Oil of New Jersey in the same year. Teddy Roosevelt, getting ready to challenge for U.S. President, was bully for progressive thought.
The time was ripe for New Jersey businessmen and industrialists to act. The New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce had been born – thanks to Attorney Greenwood, his five sponsors, and the more than 350 individuals who already had agreed to become members.
Greenwood had indeed knocked on some splendid doors, for his charter membership group included not only top corporate executives but also one Thomas A. Edison of West Orange – who modestly gave his occupation as “electrician and inventor.”
Phillipsburg jarred to the testing of jackhammers, Butler’s rubber mills gave the town a smell of burning overshoes, Dover’s streets reflected throughout every long night a fiery glow from a rolling mill near the town center.
The moon, much less the sun, never set on Newark’s incredibly varied factories. Glassworks in Cumberland County ran 24 hours a day. Camden boasted of its output of condensed soup, talking machines and ocean liners.
Perth Amboy’s copper smelters and refineries turned out half of America’s copper, Bayonne claimed that it was the world’s leading producer of petroleum products, and Atlantic City wanted no business except that of welcoming visitors to its staid old wooden hotels.
In Burlington, James Birch’s workers made nearly all of the jinrickshas used in Japan, China and India.
It was 1911, when the world teetered on the edge of innocence, buoyed by assurances from Europe that three blood cousins - England’s King George V, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, and Russia’s Czar Nicholas – NEVER would wage war on one another.
In New Jersey, old ways continued acceptable as 948 water wheels ran mills along every stream with even a modest water flow. State officials called waterpower “a most vital energy resource.”
Thomas Edison’s electric motors were somewhat acceptable, although steam continued to provide nearly 80 percent of all industrial energy.
This was New Jersey industry in 1911:
- Smelting and refining copper comprised more than 10 percent of all industrial output.
- Paterson’s scores of silk mills made it one of the world’s great silk centers.
- More than anything, New Jersey factory workers could produce nearly everything.
That would be an enduring legacy.
If you queried an industrialist on the streets of any New Jersey city in 1911, he would have insisted that the state’s major cities would always be pre-eminent, that automobiles and airplanes might be interesting but would never eliminate the horse, and that immigrants, while numerous, would never replace “good American labor.”
As for the 325,000 workers in New Jersey factories (25 percent of them female), they endured an average work week of 60 hours – for less than $10 a week (in good times).
It WAS an age of innocence, an age which in times yet to come could, for some reason, be called “the good old days.”