America's 10 Oldest Public Companies
To own stocks in these firms is to own a piece of the country's history.
By many accounts, the first was Tuttle's Red Barn, established in 1632 on a settlement near the Maine-New Hampshire border with a small land grant from King Charles I.
We've come a long way from apples to AAPL.
Although countless businesses provided goods and services in America's formative years, only a few -- including Caswell-Massey perfume and Philadelphia Contributionship insurance, both established in 1752 -- remain in operation. Fewer still can be found on the public market, either as standalone firms or smaller subsidiaries. Here, Minyanville profiles the 10 public companies with the oldest roots.
Lorillard Tobacco Company, Est. 1760 |
Now picked up along with a couple scratch-off tickets at the corner bodega, the origins of Newport Cigarettes date back to a makeshift "snuff-grinding" factory on Chatham Street (today's Park Row) in Colonial New York City. The proprietor, a French Protestant named Pierre Lorillard, began selling his tobacco products in 1760, which he packaged inside dried animal bladders to keep fresh.
Lorillard may be responsible for the blackened lungs of many Americans but our country also owes the company a handshake for our very independence. Tobacco products like Lorillard's helped finance the Revolutionary War. As an anti-Loyalist, the French settler died during the British occupation of New York in 1776.
Today, headquartered in Greensboro, NC, Lorillard, Inc., through its Lorillard Tobacco Company (LO) subsidiary, is the country's third largest cigarette manufacturer with net sales totaling nearly $6 billion.
Baker's, Est. 1765 |
A Harvard-educated doctor, aptly-named John Baker, teamed up with a young Irish immigrant and aspiring chocolatier named John Hannon to capitalize on the growing demand in the colonies for the sweet commodity. In 1765, the two partners began importing beans and producing chocolate from a small, wood-framed mill along the banks of the Neponset River outside of Boston.
A certain British-imposed tax meant enormous fortune for the company in 1773 when disgruntled patriots decided to replace their afternoon cup of tea with hot chocolate -- made by scraping the chocolate off "hard cakes" and boiling it in water. Seven years later, the first official "Baker's Chocolate" product was sold. In 1833, Baker's was the only branded food item sold in Abraham Lincoln's general store.
After landing in the hands of the Forbes Syndicate and, later, Postum Cereal Company, which became General Foods, Baker's Chocolate was acquired by Kraft Foods (KFT) in 1989.
Ames, Est. 1774 |
The iron-bladed shovels, pioneered by blacksmith Captain John Ames in 1774, literally broke the ground for industrial America with their construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, the B&O Railroad, the interstate highway system and the Hoover Dam. They helped build treasured national monuments like the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore and allowed prospectors to dig for California gold. Admiral Byrd used the shovels to explore Antarctica.
Ames remained a family-owned tool company for roughly 175 years, first being acquired in the 1950s and going through several mergers until Griffon Corporation (GFF) purchased it as Ames True Temper in 2010.
Bowne, Est. 1775 |
Back when there was a Queen Street in downtown Manhattan, Bowne & Co. stood at number 39 and sold writing and printing materials. A few years after its opening in 1775, the company began providing printing services. Among the firm's firsts was printing the National Association of Baseball Player's first baseball rulebook in 1858 and installing one of New York's first telephones.
While many American companies folded during national crises, Bowne & Co. persevered through the Civil War and the Great Depression. During World War II, the company printed application blanks for Defense Bonds at a constant clip.
Bowne & Co. incorporated in 1909, went public in 1968 under the ticker BNE, and was acquired of by Chicago-based global print services company RR Donnelley (RRD) in 2010.
Bank of New York, Est. 1784 |
Just as the dust was settling from the last British soldiers' footsteps leaving American soil, the battalion commander who helped force the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia turned his attention to finance. Alexander Hamilton, also a prominent lawyer and founding father, established the country's oldest bank in 1784, only the second in the 13 colonies.
The Bank of New York was founded with a $500 capital investment and hired, as one of its first employees, a young John Jacob Astor, salaried at $2 per week, who would become America's first millionaire. For the next century, the firm would make it through the financial crises of 1819, 1837, 1873, 1893 and, most notably, the panic of 1857, triggered by the New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company's embezzlement scandal.
Today, under the name The Bank of New York Mellon (BK), the institution earns revenue upwards of $14 billion.
Cigna, Est. 1792 |
The same year The Old Farmer's Almanac debuted with tide table listings, the nation's oldest marine insurance company, Insurance Company of North America (INA), was borne out of a series of meetings among Philadelphia's elite at Independence Hall. The company's first two policies insured the ship "America" on its voyage from Philadelphia to Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
After expanding its insurance coverage, INA policies would eventually insure gold prospectors in California, those left homeless during the great Chicago fire, and victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which destroyed nearly five square miles of the city. Along with its subsidiaries, INA paid out a total of $4,772,000 to San Franciscans in the aftermath.
Almost two hundred years after its inception, INA merged with life insurance provider Connecticut General Corporation in 1982 and formed Cigna (CI). Today, the worldwide health service company boasts 30,000 employees worldwide and claims $21.3 billion in revenue.
State Street, Est. 1792 |
Just in time for the opening of the New York Stock Exchange, Boston's Union Bank was chartered, becoming Massachusetts' oldest continuously operating bank until its merger with investment company State Street (STT) in 1925. The previous year saw the birth of the modern U.S. mutual fund with the creation of the Massachusetts Investors' Trust, of which State Street was named custodian.
State Street grew that first mutual fund into custodianship of 56% of the funds currently in the US mutual fund market, making it the country's largest provider of mutual fund custody. Within the last 10 years, State Street's assets under management rose from $711 billion to $2 trillion.
Jim Beam, Est. 1795 |
Before Kentucky was even a state, rebel farmer Jacob Beam began experimenting on his farm in the bluegrass hills with a recipe for bourbon whiskey, blending corn and grains with spring water, running it through a still and aging it in barrels. In 1795, he sold his first barrel.
Four generations and 13 years of prohibition later, the bourbon was branded Jim Beam after Jacob's great grandson, Colonel James B. Beam, who recommenced the newly-legal business in 1933. Today, Jim Beam, under holding company Fortune Brands (FO), is one of the best selling brands of bourbon in the world.
JPMorgan Chase, Est. 1799 |
From 1784 through 1791, Alexander Hamilton's Bank of New York held its Federalist Party monopoly on Manhattan banking until a fellow Continental Army officer, lawyer and politician named Aaron Burr sought to give it some competition.
Under the guise of providing a waterworks service -- something the city needed following a yellow fever outbreak -- Burr created the Manhattan Company with a surreptitious clause in the charter that enabled the company to perform "moneyed transactions" with its excess capital.
By 1799, Burr's company opened the Bank of the Manhattan Company, the city's second commercial bank, in a house at 40 Wall Street. That company was eventually absorbed by Chase Manhattan Bank and then JPMorgan Chase (JPM).
What brought the famous enemies to the duel that took Hamilton's life were not just personal and political differences. They were just as much about business and JPMorgan Chase now stands as the beneficiary of that rivalry.
DuPont, Est. 1802 |
The creation of one of the world's most successful chemical companies is due, in large part, to the French Revolution. Company founder Eleuthère Irénée (E.I.) du Pont was a child of a French economist, political writer and government official who supported a constitutional monarchy, even volunteering to guard Louis XVI when a mob attacked the palace in 1792. After escaping death by guillotine, du Pont fled to America with his family.
The du Ponts settled in Delaware at the turn of the century and by 1802, E.I., who'd already studied gunpowder manufacturing with chemist Antoine Lavoisier in France, opened a powder mill on the Brandywine River near Wilmington. An under-tapped market in North America, du Pont's business saw early growth and by the Civil war, was supplying the Union Army with half of its gunpowder, including its black "Mammoth Powder" for heavy artillery use.
In the 20th Century, DuPont (DD) would continue to expand its empire to include the production of dynamite and smokeless powder, synthetic rubber, polyester, nylon, Teflon and essential materials used in the Apollo Space Project. It remains a pioneer in the fields of agriculture and nutrition, biotechnology, and sustainable materials.
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