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The Laurel Club

From its earliest years, Johnson & Johnson proudly hired women at a time when many businesses would not. When the company was founded in 1886, the startup consisted of just 14 employees—and eight of them were women. As it grew, so did the number of its women employees. By the early 1900s, the company had hired hundreds of women workers, some even taking on leadership positions. And, beyond simply employing women, Johnson & Johnson consciously created social opportunities for them—offering classes, events, and community service activities. These efforts were first formally organized with the establishment of the Laurel Club, which solidified the company’s commitment to its women employees and fostering their professional growth.

The original Laurel Club building.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Founded in 1907, the Laurel Club was an employee organization launched by women, exclusively for women. It was to be a space for education, wellness, socializing, and professional development, “a center where all may find opportunities of enjoyment and education,” declared its charter. The clubhouse, located on lower Hamilton Street on the company’s New Brunswick campus, comprised exercise facilities (tennis and basketball courts), a lending library, dining room for shared meals, classrooms, and parlors for classes and discussions. Women were offered a variety of courses, covering more traditional subjects like embroidery, in addition to a variety of athletic offerings, like calisthenics.

The Laurel Club also had a formidable women’s basketball team that played in the club’s on-site gymnasium.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Beyond simply being a social organization for women, the Laurel Club fostered leadership skills and offered its members educational classes in a variety of subjects. Sometimes company leaders like Scientific Director Frederick Kilmer, as well as outside instructors gave guest lectures at the clubhouse. By the early 1900s, women headed a quarter of the company’s departments. The same year the Laurel Club was founded, Johnson & Johnson hired its first woman scientist, Edith von Kuster, who quickly became an active Laurel Club member. 

The club was established when women had very few legal rights. Married women were—for all intents and purposes—the property of their husbands. No woman could hold public office, serve on a jury, or vote. Despite the obstacles, many women were politically-active through workplace civic groups like the Laurel Club. The Laurel Club members’ causes echoed the larger efforts of the ongoing Progressive Movement—the members concentrated on improving the lives of women and children.

The Laurel Club’s parlor was a space for passionate discussions, where guest lectures were held.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

At the heart of the Club’s mission was public service with a focus on child and maternal public health. Its first cause was supporting New Brunswick orphanages. In 1908, the Club hosted its first annual holiday celebration for New Brunswick orphans. Subsequently, each year at Christmastime, members hosted a feast at the clubhouse, gave gifts, and planned Yuletide festivities to raise the children’s spirits. Members also ran coat drives, donating the collected coats to the orphans. Another early cause of the club was a collaboration with Johnson & Johnson. By the early 1900s, the company had expanded into maternal health and baby products to help with delivery and the first vulnerable years of a child’s life. To aid and educate local mothers who couldn’t afford formal healthcare for themselves or their children, the Laurel Club launched a monthly baby clinic. During the clinic hours, a doctor met with mothers, educating them on proper care, teaching them basic hygiene, and providing them with the company baby supplies. Laurel Club members also raised money to buy beds for New Brunswick hospitals.

In addition to providing the mothers who attended the clinic with JOHNSON’S® Baby Products, members also collected blankets and baby toys for them.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

The Laurel Club was part of a larger national effort to organize women’s labor and further women worker-run clubs. It belonged to the National League of Women Workers (NLWW), a union that supported female industrial workers, offering them insurance benefits and resources to support them and help them succeed in their jobs, as well opportunities to socialize, learn, and professionally grow. Just ten years after the NLWW’s founding in 1898, the league and its members enjoyed presidential recognition. As the headlining event of its annual conference, delegates from NLWW clubs, including the Laurel Club, were invited to the White House for an official reception. Five delegates from the Laurel Club were chosen to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt in the East Room on May 1, 1908. During the celebration, Roosevelt articulated his support of women’s organizations, especially for workers. His commitment to women’s rights continued after he left the Oval Office. In 1912, he traveled to New Brunswick, New Jersey, for a presidential campaign rally. In that year, he announced his support for women’s suffrage. He remained a steadfast champion of women’s rights.

A crowd gathered for Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign speech in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1912. Among them were likely Johnson & Johnson employees and perhaps Laurel Club members.

Image courtesy: Rutgers University Archives

The Laurel Club began as a safe, creative, didactic space for women to grow professionally. But, before the club ended in 1925, it had redefined Johnson & Johnson’s company culture—formalizing its commitment to women employees. Today, the company continues fosters female leadership and professional development on a global scale to match its contemporary reach. Through conferences, mentorship programs, generous parental leave, and flexible work schedules, Johnson & Johnson strives to empower its women employees.

 

 

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

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