Until its demolition in 2007, the warehouse at 111 First Street, owned by P. Lorillard and Company for some 85 years, represented the heyday of Jersey City's industrial era. At the end of the nineteenth century, P. Lorillard and Company stood as one of the leading recognized brand-name manufacturers in America, one of the oldest manufacturers of tobacco products, and was the nation's largest manufacturer of tobacco. It became synonymous with the production of all manner of tobacco including snuff, plug, chewing, and smoking tobacco, numbering over 160 brands. In 1883, the company reported sales of over $10 million a year in domestic and foreign trade from the production of over 25 million pounds of tobacco products.
Lorillard developed mastery in the category of advertising: they paid farmers to allow painted signs on the sides of barns, included trade cards in their packaging, and offered premiums for other products. Lorillard may also be responsible for use of the "cigar store Indian" in association with the sale of tobacco as early as 1789 (James 16). Kent cigarettes were named for Herbert A. Kent, a board chairman and former president, who promoted the "Old Gold" brand of cigarettes. The "Old Gold" name in colored brick once appeared on the circular chimney within the courtyard of the former Lorillard facility.
The company's founder was Pierre Lorillard, a French Huguenot, who started making snuff in the Bronx, New York City, in 1760. The snuff factory site today is part of the New York Botanical Garden. Lorillard's sons Peter and George took over the business, setting the pattern for a long-term family involvement in the company. It was incorporated in 1891.
In the early 1870s, the Lorillard Company moved to 111 First Street and manufactured tobacco products as well as snuff. It took over a Greek Revival brick building that was constructed in 1866 for one of the nation's first conglomerates, the American Screw Company, which fronted on Washington Street. It soon became part of the growing industrial complex in Jersey City. In 1868 Charles Siedler, who would serve as Jersey City's mayor (1876-1878), became a partner with the company.
Rick James, in his nominating report for the "warehouse district" of Jersey City for historic preservation, remarks that Siedler most likely led his partners to develop their company in Jersey City. Here the company could avail itself of several advantages offered by the city: the Pennsylvania Railroad and Harsimus Yards for product distribution; a newly arrived immigrant labor supply; nearby port location for the importing of spices for the flavoring of its various tobacco brands; and a municipal water supply system for safety measures. Fire prevention was of the utmost importance to Lorillard in safeguarding the firm's highly combustible products. Lorillard was noted for the installation of the latest automatic sprinkler system of the time in its manufacturing plant as well as for maintaining a detail of firefighters (15-17).
In 1883, Industries of New Jersey, Hudson, Passaic, and Bergen Counties published the following description of the company: "It occupies three immense brick buildings used as factories that cover yard for its use, for the manufacture of cases, etc., for packing its goods for transportation . . . .Two of the factories cover one entire block each. These are fitted with machinery, and the united force of four steam engines is required are fitted with machinery, and the united force of four steam engines is required are fitted with machinery, and the united force of four steam engines is required to operate it, amounting to 800 horsepower. Thirty-five hundred hands are employed in these factories, the payroll amounting to thirty-five thousand dollars per week, the hands being paid weekly" (886).
Among the workers who numbered four thousand in 1884 were school-aged boys and girls. Since Jersey City lacked a free night school program, Lorillard accommodated New Jersey's compulsory school law for those younger than sixteen by forming its own evening school for its workers in 1884. The school was in the library of Booraem Hall on Newark Avenue, not far from the factory. It also offered a free library for the adult employees managed by Dr. Leonard S. Gordon, Lorillard's chief chemist and physician; he helped establish the Jersey City Free Public Library (James 17). Lorillard also offered sewing classes and a dispensary for its employees.
The Lorillard Company was also noteworthy for its hiring practices and fair treatment of African American workers. The story of Peter Ray (1800-1882), a life-long Lorillard employee, demonstrates that the company valued and rewarded the contributions of its African American employees. Ray first started working for the company in New York City as an eleven year old errand boy, rose to the position of foreman, and was later promoted to general superintendent at the large Jersey City facility (Peterson 327).
In 1887 Lorillard constructed an annex between First and Second streets. Besides the manufacturing plant in Jersey City, it maintained corporate offices at 114 Water Street in New York City.
By 1910, Lorillard became part of the American Tobacco Company controlled by James Buchanan Duke (1856-1925) of Greensboro NC. In 1884, Duke had acquired the license for an automated cigarette-rolling machine from its developer James A. Bonsack of the Bonsack Machine Company. Duke also consolidated the tobacco industry into a consortium under the American Tobacco Co. name, soon called the "tobacco trust." Lorillard, however, retained its name. It constructed a new factory on the Thompson estate in the Marion section of Jersey City on 170 city lots for the employment of 4000 to 5000 workers. The six-story building was a fireproof structure of steel and brick and was located in the proximity of the Pennsylvania, the Lackawanna, the Susquehanna and the Erie railroads for shipment of its products nationwide.
In 1911, the US Supreme Court found the American Tobacco Company "in restraint of trade" under the provisions of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 (United States v. American Tobacco Co). The company was divided into the American Tobacco Company, Leggett & Meyers and P. Lorillard. Lorillard became an independent company again. It operated its "plug" factory at 111 First Street to about 1919 and its cigar factory at 104 First Street to about 1928; the latter building was destroyed by fire, circa 1990. In 1905 the warehouse was taken over by the Butler Corporation, a distributor to independent variety stores, and in 1928 the main Lorillard facility was taken over by J.R. Reynolds, the manufacturers of "Camel" cigarettes.
Lorillard moved its manufacturing operation from Jersey City to Greensboro, NC, in 1956. Its Jersey City facilities were then occupied by a variety of commercial ventures including storage, retail stores and factories. Lorillard became a 250-year old tobacco company in 2010.
Between 1989 and 2005, the block-long warehouse at 111 First Street showed promise as an arts center for the "Historic Warehouse District" project. The former tobacco building offered artists readapted space for residences, interior space with rental studios, a commercial gallery, and the (Charles) Chamot Gallery (1996-2005). The project was short lived as new property development at the location became more economically attractive. The warehouse was razed in 2007 and ground breaking for a residential tower took place on the site in 2013.
Goodwin, David. Left Bank of the Hudson: Jersey City and the Artists of 111 First Street. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.
Industries of New Jersey, Hudson, Passaic, and Bergen Counties. New York: Historical Publishing Co., 1883.
James, Rick."Warehouse Historic District; Jersey City, New Jersey." Text copyright © 2003-04 Rick James. (46 pp)
Jersey City of To-Day, Its History, People, Trades, Commerce, Institutions and Industries, Hudson County, New Jersey America. Ed. Walter G. Muirhead. Jersey City, NJ: Walter G. Muirhead, 1910.
Kaulessar, Ricardo. "The Last of 111 First Street." Jersey Reporter 15 June 2007.
Peterson, Carla L. Black Gotham : A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.