By Thomas A. Bergbauer, Retired Courier-Post Editor
Just 100 years ago Camden was a thriving, prosperous industrial metropolis and the future looked bright for this river city.
At the end of the 19th century and in the first couple decades of the 20th century, industry in Camden came alive and at that time most of Camden County’s business was located in the city.
Camden grew from a few hundred small houses and commercial establishments in the late 1830s to a leader among national industrial giants that got their start in the city along the Delaware. Its location on the river was clearly its most marketable asset.
Names like Victor Talking Machine Company, later RCA Victor and RCA, Campbell Soup, J. B. VanSciver, Esterbrook Pen, New York Shipbuilding Corp., Knox Gelatin, Hollingshead chemical, Joseph Oat, Warren Webster and J. Eavenson & Sons were just a few on the rollcall of big businesses giving Camden its shining hour.
Campbell Soup, one of Camden’s first major firms and now one of only two remaining holdouts—the other being Joseph Oat Company, manufacturer of machine parts for more than 100 years—was the brainchild of Joseph Campbell who founded the canning and preserving plant in 1869 and who developed condensed soups under the direction of Dr. John T. Dorrance.
It was just four years after the Civil War when Campbell, who was often seen on the streets of Camden peddling fresh fruit, became partners with Abraham Anderson, a manufacturer of iceboxes. Together they began a food-canning business that became worldwide. In 1897 things changed for the company when Dorrance, a young chemist, joined the firm. Dorrance invented the idea of cutting the cost of making soup by condensing it in the canning process.
After that, business at Campbell’s was never the same. In 1950s, as the company continued to expand, it moved its corporate headquarters from the waterfront area to the present site near Memorial Avenue, just east of center city.
Ten years before Campbell founded his canning company on Camden’s busy waterfront, Richard Esterbrook opened a factory at the foot of Cooper Street. The Esterbrook Steel Pen Factory was established in 1858 with just 15 workers. At the time two of the four pen companies located in the United States was situated in Camden. Besides Esterbrook, the first in the country, the C. Howard Hunt Pen Company at 7th and State Streets, produced pens, pencil sharpeners and allied products. It employed 125 workers. Eventually the Esterbrook plant had 450 workers and produced 600,000 pens a day.
In 1964 Esterbrook moved from Camden to an industrial park off Route 70 in Cherry Hill after it was disclosed that the Federal Area Redevelopment Administration refused to classify Camden as a depressed area, thus losing Federally supported financing to industries and businesses.
In November 1967 the company merged with Venus Pen Company of New York and in 1969 Venus-Esterbrook phased out their operations in Cherry Hill putting an end to another era. In 1940 an Esterbrook pen and pencil set cost about $5, today the highly prized pens and pencils are a rarity and considered a collectors item on the antique market.
The C. Howard Hunt Pen Company opened in Camden in 1900. It moved its manufacturing facilities from Camden to Statesville, N.C., in 1955 and transferred it headquarters to Philadelphia ten years later.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Victor Talking Machine Company was one of Camden’s largest industrial employers. Incorporated in 1901 it had 7,000 employees by the time World War I broke out. The company was the brainchild of Eldridge R. Johnson who invented a new spring motor for hand powered gramophones in the 1890s.
Johnson was born in Wilmington, Del., in 1867 and came to Camden in 1886 to work for the Scull Machine Shop. He bought the shop in 1894 and developed the spring motor for Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia. During that time he perfected his own version of the disc-talking machine.
In 1906 Johnson’s company bought the Berliner company and that same year introduced the enclosed floating horn in the Victrola and developed new sound reproducing and assembly line methods.
Great performers came to the Camden recording studio at Cooper Street and Delaware Avenue to make records for the Victor company. In later years the company underwent a multimillion-dollar building program that included a six-story shipping plant, a powerhouse, office buildings, cabinet department and record grinding plant. Camden became known as “The Radio Capital of the World.”
In 1929 Victor merged with Radio Corporation of America becoming RCA Victor and in 1985 RCA merged with General Electric. Over the years the company moved its operations to other parts of the state and nation.
Between 1880 and 1900 other companies were founded in the city. J.B. VanSciver, Richard M. Hollingshead, Warren Webster, Eavenson soap, Knox Gelatin and the New York Shipbuilding Corporation were among the new arrivals.
Hollingshead, who opened a plant 1885 at 9th and Market streets manufactured waxes and automotive oils and did work for the government during World War II. The company was eventually bought by the Classic Chemical company and closed its Camden operations in the 1980s.
Warren Webster moved his vacuum feed water heater and purifier company from Philadelphia to Camden in 1893 and Joseph B. VanSciver, a Dutch-American born in Hainesport, open a small furniture store on Federal Street in 1881 at the age of 20. Seven years later his business became so successful that he had to move to a larger building at Federal Street and Delaware Avenue.
VanSciver sold inexpensive furniture as well as costly reproductions and added public showrooms at his Delaware Avenue site. The company’s distinctive landmarks were its two exotic towers atop its factory that could be seen from Philadelphia. The building was demolished in 1986.
In 1899 Henry G. Morse, a Delaware engineer and president of the Harlan and Hollingsworth Company of Wilmington, chose the Camden site for the New York Shipbuilding Corp. Morse preferred a Staten Island site for the shipbuilding company but was unable to locate there moving to Camden and keeping the name of his favorite area.
The first keel was laid on Nov. 29, 1900 and over the years more than 500 merchant ships and naval vessels slid down their ways. The battleships Michigan, Oklahoma, Idaho and South Dakota and the liners Excalibur, Exochorda, Exeter and Excambion, known throughout the world as the “Four Aces,” were built there.
In 1956, the 60-ton Kitty Hawk, one of the largest carriers in the Navy at the time, was the biggest challenge ever taken by the shipyard.
The yard closed in 1967 and it holdings liquidated. The South Jersey Port Corporation bought the yard in 1970.
Warren Webster, at one time a leader in steam heating systems, was established in Camden in 1888. The company, at the time, operated with approximately 250 employees, with founder Warren Webster leding the operation as president and general manager. Another 185 people were employed at the company’s branches. The company’s heating systems were installed in thousands of building throughout the United States. The company also did top secret work for the government during World War II.
The Knox Gelatin Company, which specialized in the production of all types of gelatin that was used in the food, photographic and pharmaceutical industries, started business at 5th and Erie streets, Camden, at the turn of the 20th Century as the Landesman Company. Soon after its founding an interest in the firm was acquired by Maurice Kind, a German-born brewer who emigrated to America in 1898. After his death in 1914, his sons, Paul and Ludwig, took control of the Kind and Landesman firm.
Paul Kind, a chemistry graduate of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, worked with the chief chemist, Thomas Downer, while Ludwig helped to develop the specialized gelatins produced by the firm. The company became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Knox Gelatin in 1955. Knox, whose headquarters was located in Johnstown, N.Y., was sold to the Lipton Tea Company in May 1972.
J. Eavenson & Sons soap plant opened in 1906 at Delaware Avenue and Penn Street. The company manufactured soap products for both consumer and industrial uses. At its peak it employed approximately 250 employees. The company went out of business in 1956.
As the 19th Century grew to a close, Camden became the 44th largest city in the country and was the center of South Jersey life. With all this industry Camden had a new beginning with a new century, but as the 20th Century progressed so did this industry, forcing it to expand and as it outgrew its limited city space it had to look to other areas of the country and state.